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Hennepin County’s guide to the eco-friendly home: Sustainable living tips for every stage of life

When you think about an eco-friendly home, visions of solar cells, zero-carbon building materials, and high-tech heating and cooling systems may well spring to mind. Which sounds great – but also expensive, inconvenient, and impractical for cash and time-constrained home dwellers. 

The truth is, it’s not that hard to go green – especially when you embrace reuse and start with manageable steps. Just make one or two changes at a time.

Family with two young children carrying boxes into their new home

This guide can help you get started. It’s filled with ideas you can adopt right away – whether you’re moving into your first home, managing a houseful of kids, or downscaling as an empty nester. The ideas you’ll find here are by no means comprehensive. In fact, they just scratch the surface. Think of them as springboards to get you started today to make your home a more eco-friendly place. 

A couple notes: 

  • While the intent of this guide is to help you go green, a lot of the following tips will also help you save money. 
  • Many of our tips will apply to people at any stage of life, but rather than repeating them throughout this guide, we’ll only list them once. With that in mind, you may want to peruse the tips even in those sections that don’t apply to you.

Family carrying boxes upstairs in their new home

Your first home

For first-time homebuyers or renters, a lot is in flux at this stage of your life. You may be a bit overwhelmed, but odds are you’re also excited by the opportunity to craft an environment that meets your needs and reflects your style and values. 

If you’re building a house or shopping for one that checks off all your boxes, now’s the time to make big decisions about building materials, heating and cooling options, and space requirements, and much more. Or maybe you’ve just moved into your home, and are busy prioritizing what it’s going to take to make it truly yours. 

Either way, now is a great time to incorporate eco-friendly thinking into all the decisions ahead of you. Some options will be big. They’ll require a significant expenditure of time and money to bring to life. But others – most in fact – will be pretty easy to do. Here are some options to consider:

First things first: Moving in.

People generate a lot of waste when moving. Boxes and packing materials alone can fill up your recycling and trash. Not only that, this is a time to take stock of what you have and what you need. It’s the ultimate house-cleaning opportunity. To help you navigate the process, we’ve compiled a number of tips and tricks for reducing waste while moving. It covers topics including unpacking your stuff, cleaning your new home, and a variety of matters you’ll need to address while settling in. It even includes a handy checklist. Simply download Hennepin County’s guide to reducing waste when you move.

Young couple sitting in their new home surrounded by boxes to unpack

Renting with others? Assess what you have, and thrift for what you need.

If you’re moving in with other people, the first thing on your list will be to determine what each person will bring to the household. Once you’ve identified the gaps in your household inventory, hit the resale retailers. Many of them specialize in just the items you may need, including glassware, planters, appliances, décor, furnishings and shelving. Hennepin County’s Choose to Reuse site has a special search tool that can help match a nearby reuse retailer to your specific need.

Embrace composting and organics recycling.

Composting is nature’s way of recycling, and an effective way for individuals to reduce trash (a higher percentage of which is food scraps), address climate change, and build healthy soil. Better yet, it’s surprisingly easy to do, especially if all you’re doing is collecting your food scraps and yard trim and dumping them into a bin for collection. It takes a bit more effort to do it yourself, but the EPA publishes a great guide on home composting. If you rent, ask your landlord about organics recycling, a service rental properties are required to provide in Hennepin County.

Family composting in their kitchen

Swap incandescent bulbs for LED lighting.

Yep, LED bulbs will cost you more, but they’re far more energy efficient than ordinary bulbs, and will last a whole lot longer. LEDs, especially Energy Star-rated products use at least 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent lighting. Plus, they emit much less heat, so your AC won’t have to work as hard.

Reduce energy consumption for heating and cooling.

If you’re a new homeowner, look into buying a smart thermostat. They have eco-modes that automatically lower the temperature when you’re not home. You’ll reduce your energy consumption and pay correspondingly less in utility costs each month. If you’re renting, you may have less control over the temperature in your living space, but one thing you can do is speak with your landlord about how to cut energy use. Everybody gains from conserving energy and lowering your monthly utility bills.

What’s the right temperature to save money and keep comfortable? Xcel Energy recommends setting the thermostat at 65-70 while at home, and 58 degrees while away. CenterPoint Energy urges its customers to reduce their thermostat settings to 65 degrees during the day when at home, and five degrees lower when asleep or away.

Man adjusting thermostat in home

Get a low-flow showerhead.

Look for a WaterSense-rated model that earns good reviews for delivering a powerful spray despite using less water. Older showerheads use about 5 gallons of water. Low-flow ones use less than two. The EPA reports that showering accounts for nearly 17% of residential water use for the average family. If you’re not sure whether your new home already has a low-flow shower head, place a bucket under the shower and turn it on. If the bucket fills in less than 20 seconds, you don’t have a low-flow showerhead. Learn more about showerheads from the EPA. Also, Centerpoint Energy offers low-flow showerheads to their customers at a deep discount. Learn more: Energy-saving products for your home.

Conserve water while you’re waiting for it to heat up.

If you’re living in a place where it takes forever for your shower to heat up, catch the cold water in a bucket and use it for watering plants, washing vegetables or cooking. And if you’re a homeowner, look into insulating your hot water pipes. You’ll get hot water faster and reduce water waste while it heats up. A heating contractor can do this for you, or you can DIY it. Big box retailers sell foam insulation for about $2 for six feet. 

Make your toilet more efficient.

If you’re stuck with an old-style toilet whose tank is way bigger than necessary, here’s a trick for saving water: place a (sealed), half-gallon plastic jug filled with water and some pebbles or marbles inside the tank of your toilet. Every time you flush, you’ll save a half-gallon of water.

Get energy-efficient appliances.

If you need new appliances, choose Energy Star-rated ones. An Energy Star washing machine, for example, uses 50% less energy and 50% less water than standard washers. And if you’re in the market for a range, cooktop or wall oven, note that the Inflation Reduction Act includes funding for states to provide rebates for the purpose of the electric versions of these appliances. 

Explore green flooring.

This is something worth considering if you’re putting in new floors, or to look for in a prospective home purchase. After all, the average home in America requires more than 2,000 square feet of flooring, and many of the most common flooring choices are terrible for the environment. Irresponsibly sourced wood, for example, is causing massive deforestation in Central America and Africa, mostly due to demand from China and the United States. Vinyl is a cheaper alternative, but it has a high carbon footprint and you can’t recycle it. Some eco-friendlier options to consider are linoleum, reclaimed wood, recycled tire, cork, bamboo, recycled rubber and stained concrete.

Many building material retailers in Hennepin County offer reclaimed wood flooring and other reusable flooring choices. One option to consider is the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity ReStore home improvement outlet. Its inventory includes a wide range of donated materials, including cabinets, appliances, furniture, windows and more.

Consider solar energy.

This isn’t practical, or even available, for every household, but the situation is changing rapidly. What might not have been possible for you before could well make sense now. And the Inflation Reduction Act includes a 30% residential clean energy tax credit for solar roof installation. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter who pays for your utilities, you can also sign up for a community solar garden or wind exchange to offset your energy bills. Check out the Citizens Utility Board Consumer Guide to Community Solar.

Weatherize your windows and doors.

Seal any leaks in your doors and windows using weatherization techniques such as draft snakes. For some great tips, check out Hennepin County Climate Action’s guide to keeping your home comfortable in the winter while saving energy.

Man pointing at solar panels on roof

Multi-person households

If you have kids in the house, and maybe more on the way, you have a lot on your plate. It can be tough to undertake major eco-friendly home improvements. But there are plenty of smaller steps you can take, the benefits of which add up to significant savings, both for the planet and your budget. Plus, your actions on this front will be especially impactful on your kids. Now is the time to build awareness and instill the lifelong habits that will enable your children to be good citizens of the planet. Here are some ways to create a more eco-friendly home.

Buy used vs. buying new. Even better: Buy less!

The more people who live in a household, the more goods they’ll accumulate, and the greater the amount of waste they’ll generate. One of the most important things you can do is simply ask yourself: Do I really need it? This is an important question because buying less in the first place is the most impactful way to reduce waste. If you determine that the item is truly needed, look for opportunities to buy it used versus new. Thrift stores and online marketplaces are filled with usable goods that would otherwise go into landfills or incinerators.

Remember, also, that even online retailers can offer opportunities for reuse. You may not have noticed, but lots of sellers include the option to buy refurbished products versus new ones.

Something else to keep in mind: Before you throw away your broken vacuum cleaner or coffee maker, consider repairing it. You can even bring it to a Hennepin County Fix-It Clinic.

Young girl buying item from garage sale

Get serious about recycling.

One way to do this is by pairing recycling bins with trash bins throughout your home, so that it’s easier for family members to keep recycling top of mind. Consult your local waste removal service for the recycling rules in your area, and keep in mind that Hennepin County offers additional recycling options.

Turn down your water heater.

Most residential water heaters are set to 140° F. That’s pretty darn hot. Give your system a test by turning on the hot tap but not the cold tap in your shower. If it’s scalding, try dialing down the water temperature to 120° F, so that your water will be no hotter than what’s comfortable for a shower.

Stop buying bottled water.

You know that single-use plastic water bottles are an environmental disaster, in part because nearly 80% of them don’t get recycled. Moreover, they take forever to biodegrade. Plus, vast resources are expanded in plastic production. We have safe tap water in Hennepin County, and if you don’t like the taste of your community’s water supply, you have plenty of filtering options to make it taste as good or better than whatever you might purchase.

Cut down on paper towels.

No, you don’t have to eliminate paper towels, but cloth towels often do the job just as well, and can be reused. You don’t even have to buy cloth towels. Just cup up old shirts to make rags and throw them in the washing machine when dirty. As for napkins, switch those to cloth as well.

Clean your refrigerator coils.

Refrigerator coils help cool the fridge, and when dirt, dust and debris obstruct them, the coils can’t efficiently release heat. Consequently, your electricity-hungry refrigerator runs less efficiently. Not only that, a refrigerator is an expensive investment, and cleaning the coils will help extend its useful life. Not sure how to do it? Here’s a handy guide to refrigerator coil cleaning.

While you’re at it, clean your dryer filter.

Dirty dryer filters hamper dryer performance, increase energy use, and shorten your appliance’s life span. Even worse, in some cases they can be a fire hazard. Here’s an easy way to clean your dryer filter.

Run the dishwasher only when it’s full – and turn off the heat-drying setting

Filling the dishwasher to capacity will help you reduce overall use. And to reduce the amount of energy used per load, skip your dishwasher’s energy-intensive drying cycle. Oh, and when handwashing dishes, fill a sink or basin with soapy water rather than keeping the water running.

Take shorter showers!

The average person in the U.S. uses 25,300 gallons of water a year (69.3 gallons a day).  An average shower uses about 5 gallons of water per minute. Shortening your shower by a minute or two can save up to 150 gallons of water per month. Shower “navy style” ¬– where you turn the water off while you lather – and you’ll save even more.  Think about this: A two-minute reduction in your daily shower time can save 10+ gallons of water. And if you (and your kids) keep your shower under 5 minutes total, you’ll save up to 1,000 gallons a year.

Make your own green cleaner.

Here’s a guide to making an all-purpose green cleaner. It works just as well as branded products, but costs less and doesn’t rely on all the chemicals they employ.

Fix leaking toilets and faucets.

The EPA estimates that 10% of U.S. homes have leaks that can waste up to 90 gallons or more of water every day, leading to water loss of more than 10,000 gallons a year. Sometimes you may not even be aware of a leak, so watch your water bill for unusual spikes.

Try going plastic free.

Are you game to give it a try? The online Plastic-Free Challenge will help you increase your understanding of plastics and plastic waste, uncover opportunities to cut back on the amount of plastic you bring into your home, and provide support and motivation to make lasting change at home and in your community. The challenge has more than 80 actions to choose from in eight categories. The Plastic-Free Challenge runs during the month of February.

Not everyone’s in a position to go plastic-free, but we can all reduce our dependency on it. That’s why Hennepin County offers these tips to use less plastic

Challenge your family to stop food waste.

Hennepin County’s online Stop Food Waste Challenge will help you learn more about food waste and improve your skills in cooking, planning, shopping, and storage to prevent wasting food. The challenge has more than 40 actions to choose from in five categories. The Stop Food Waste Challenge typically runs during the month of August with registration open in July.

For kids

Maybe the best way to reduce your family’s environmental impact is to make sure your kids grow up knowing why sustainability is so important. You can do that not only by incorporating eco-friendly practices into your lives, but including kids in those activities.

Embrace eco-friendly habits early.

From your preparations for welcoming a baby into your home to the activities you engage in with your kids, it’s never too early to think about eco-friendly child rearing and education. Here are some kid-related activities to consider from the Plastic-Free Challenge. They range from how to avoid new-baby items to seeking out plastic-free alternatives with your kids.

Be a climate change detective.

Adopt a storm drain or river. Be on the lookout for invasive species. Or help reduce Mississippi River plastic pollution. Hennepin County has compiled a great list of opportunities for you and your kids to participate in community science projects aimed at generating better environmental data and improving our understanding of environmental issues and climate change impacts. Not only will you teach your kids about the environment, you’ll give them something to take ownership of. Read our article about joining a community science project to investigate climate change impacts in your area.

Manage toys responsibly.

Every household with kids will have toys. The problem is that most of them are plastic. Learn how to handle this issue by reading our blog, Can you recycle plastic toys: Four tips for an eco-friendly family.

Mother and son picking up trash near river

Empty nesters

Census data shows that as American families reduce in size, our homes keep getting bigger. Over the last four decades, in fact, the average size home in the United States has increased by 1,000 square feet. Maintaining a house can eat up a lot of resources. After all, the bigger the home, the more energy that’s required to keep it livable, and the larger carbon footprint you’ll have.

So, for empty nesters, the first step in creating an eco-friendly home may involve moving to a smaller one. But even if you’re not at that stage, now is a great time to embrace simplifying and downsizing. In fact, you have a wonderful opportunity at this point in life to transition to a more streamlined set of personal belongings and a more orderly, focused life. One of the great things about losing the clutter is that we wind up focusing on what we really need, want and value.

Downsizing can be a hassle, so here are a few ways to approach this challenge.

Donate what you don’t need.

You’ll find all the details about how and where to donate at Hennepin County’s Choose to Reuse site. The principle is simple: Reduce your consumption, reuse unneeded but still usable goods, and whenever possible recycle items that have come to the end of their useful life. You’ll be amazed by the satisfaction that comes from giving your possessions a second life with other people at the end of their first life with you.

Man putting items in a box labeled "donate"

Declutter and donate on a schedule.

It may be hard to do all it once, so spread out your activities over the year. A great way to declutter is to donate unneeded but usable goods when they’re most needed by others. In the winter, your cold-weather clothing will be in demand. Springtime is a great time to donate lawn chairs, patio furniture, gardening gear. In the summer, camping gear, outdoor sports equipment and biking gear will be in demand. In the fall, holiday décor, blankets and baking supplies will find ready buyers. Refer to our article: 2021 Declutter calendar: How to reduce clutter by making donation a quarterly priority.

Heat and cool only the parts of your house you actually use.

Your home may be bigger than you need. In fact, it’s likely that you have rooms you never use unless you have family or friends visiting. In that case, close the vents in those unused spaces. Moreover, always turn off room air conditioners as you leave a room. As you go on vacation, set the thermostat at least ten full degrees below (in winter) and above (in summer) where it’d be if you were home.

Get smart about power use.

About 6% of our homes’ annual energy costs come from “phantom” energy loads produced by devices that aren’t in use. As an example, a quarter of the energy used by your TV is consumed after you’ve turned it off. One way to fight the phantom is simply to unplug the electronics you’re not using rather than simply turning them off. A more convenient option for many people, is to use smart power strips that power down devices that aren’t in use.

Help a big refrigerator act like a smaller one.

Without kids in the house, maybe you don’t need all that space in your fridge. You can help your refrigerator function more efficiently by placing jugs of water in any empty space inside (water retains cold better than air does), and by taking some time once every six months to pull the fridge away from the wall and scrub down the grime that accumulates on the coils. Remember, the refrigerator is often the biggest energy-using appliance in a home. A typical refrigerator uses more than 1,300 KWh a year and costs the average American household $120 a year in electricity.

Get an energy audit.

This is good advice at any stage of life, but it can be especially useful for empty nesters who may be looking to cut costs. Excel Energy and CenterPoint Energy have teamed up to provide this service to their customers. For most people, audits provide a pathway to save on utilities while conserving our increasingly scarce energy resources. Curious? Read more about the Home Energy Squad.

Sustainability is always in season

There’s no better time to embrace eco-friendly living than right now. Just take the steps that are manageable for you at this stage in your life. And don’t be afraid to start small. The important thing is to take action – and turn those actions into habits. Once behaviors become ingrained, it will be easy to expand upon them. And when they in turn become habits, you’ll be ready to take the next step.

Remember also, that you’re joining a whole community of people who are committed to advancing sustainability. No one creates an eco-friendly home on their own. They build on the insights, actions and resources of others. That’s the whole point of Hennepin County’s Choose to Reuse program. We’re here to provide the encouragement, inspiration and assistance you need to become a better steward of our planet’s scarce natural resources.