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Being green while saving green

In the current economic situation, it’s easy to think of being green as a luxury. You might need to postpone that solar panel installation that won’t pay off for years to come. And the non-organic, imported tomatoes at Safeway start looking better and better compared to the more expensive ones at Whole Foods. Fortunately, saving the environment and saving money often go hand and hand. In addition to obvious tips like driving less, turning down the heat in winter (or A/C in summer), and taking shorter showers, here are a few other ideas:

1. Bring your lunch

Around the TerraPass office in San Francisco, it’s hard to get lunch for less than $7-$8. Over the course of a year, that adds up to about $2,000 spent on take-out. By bringing my own lunch, I estimate I cut that in half, even when I’m being lazy and bring something prepared from Trader Joe’s. If I actually make my own lunch, the savings are greater. The environmental benefit is reduced waste — no styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery and tiny packets of condiments all packed into a disposable paper bag.

2. Eat vegetarian (at least occasionally)

Raising animals for food is a big contributor to global warming. The topic has been covered here before, so no need to rehash it. But meat is also more expensive than vegetarian alternatives like pasta and beans. One analysis in Australia calculated a 20% grocery bill savings from switching to a vegetarian menu. The cost savings also hold true for meals in restaurants.

3. Shop online

There was a recent discussion on the blog about how shopping online can be more eco-friendly than schlepping to the mall. When done right, it can also be quite a bit cheaper, even when you buy from the same stores you’d normally drive to. Most major retailers issue online coupon codes, which often save you 10-15% or more. In recent years, it’s gotten easier to find good coupons, thanks to sites like retailmenot.com that incorporate user feedback about which coupons have expired, or what conditions there might be on their usage. There are also sites that give you cash back (or points redeemable for gift certificates) if you visit them first and click-through to your shopping destination (they work by sharing a portion of the affiliate bonus that the retailer pays for sending visitors their way). Combine the rebate sites with coupon codes, and the savings become significant.

4. Buy in bulk

Buying in bulk reduces the amount of wasteful packaging that you toss away (hopefully mostly into the recycle bin). It can also reduce the number of trips you take to the store, especially the “shoot, this recipe requires 2 cups of sugar and I’ve only got 1 left” type. Even if you can’t justify the membership fee for a big warehouse store like Costco, many grocery stores sell things like flour, cereal and coffee out of bulk bins, and you earn bonus cred by brining your own containers.

The obvious catch here is not to overbuy perishable goods — really, that gallon of mayonnaise will probably spoil before you can get through it. And don’t buy large quantities of things you never needed in the first place just because they seem like a bargain.

5. Buy used

Buying used on sites such as Ebay and Craigslist cuts down on emissions from the manufacturing and transport of new goods. And these days, it’s done for much more than electronics and media. For example, I used craigslist to buy a sleeping bag for a recent camping trip, and it cost me about 20% what it would have at REI (this came as quite the surprise to some TerraPass coworkers who are familiar with my somewhat germaphobic tendencies). Just browsing the list of categories on craigslist might give you some ideas of areas where you really don’t need to buy new: furniture, tools, baby & kids gear, etc. Conveniently, you can turn this into a money-making tip by going on the selling side of it. Get rid of the old space heater that’s gathering dust in your basement and that’s one less that gets made new, and a little extra money in your wallet.

If you’ve got any more tips, share them in the comments below.

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