Photograph by nd3000 / Getty Images
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Cut back on water waste by eating more plant-based meals.

Photograph by nd3000 / Getty Images

Green your stay-at-home routine

Take advantage of time at home to get the family involved in sustainable living.

The coronavirus pandemic might have a silver lining—make that a green lining. When most of the world went into lockdown this year, planes stopped flying, commuters stopped commuting, and daily emissions dropped 17 percent below last year’s average, according to research published in Nature Climate Change. It was the single biggest drop in CO2 emissions ever recorded.

But we won’t be sheltering in place forever (even though it sometimes seems like it). When we return to work and school, these gains could quickly disappear. Or maybe not.

“We can’t just turn off our economy to reduce carbon emissions; that’s not a good solution,” says Elizabeth Thomas, a climate change scientist and professor at the University at Buffalo. “But we can learn from spending all this time at home.”

Here’s how you can use the time at home to turn your family into carbon, water, and waste warriors.

Charge carefully. Kids spending so much time at home likely means gadget usage is up—and that means more time spent charging. “Up to 23 percent of the electricity consumed in U.S. homes today vanishes as standby power, when fully charged devices are left plugged in,” says Lauren Urbanek, senior energy policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Instead of charging gadgets while you sleep—which means items stay plugged in long after they’re fully charged—give your tech just the right amount of juice during the day. Have kids make a chart or graph to figure out about how long it takes each device to drain, and how long it takes to charge back up. When it’s time to charge, set a timer and unplug the device as soon as it hits 100 percent.

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Slay vampires. Appliances that plug into outlets use power even when they’re on standby. These energy-sucking vampires usually have a light on, like the clock display on the microwave or DVD player, or the light on a game console. And don’t forget about sneaky suckers like blenders, coffee makers, TVs, and computer monitors. Challenge your kids to a spot-the-sucker game—and then unplug. Don’t want to keep pulling the plug? Use power strips for all your appliances, and put your kids in charge of remembering to turn off the whole thing.

Power down. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. home blows through more than 10,000 kilowatt-hours of energy each year—the greenhouse gas equivalent of burning over 7,000 pounds of coal. That has likely increased since the pandemic forced families inside. So consider a weekly “Turn It All Off” day to minimize energy-depleting screen time. Read books instead of watching TV, swap video games for board games, and tell family stories instead of video chatting with friends. At night, take advantage of clearer skies (reduced air pollution!) to go for a family stargazing walk. (Check out this article for more screen-time alternatives.)

Take the temp. Use all that quarantine sitting around to raise kids’ thermostat awareness. “The biggest energy users in your home tend to be heating and cooling systems,” Urbanek says. Thomas adds that turning up the thermostat by just one degree (or down in winter) could save 5 percent of the energy you’re using to cool or heat your home. To get kids in the spirit, play “How High Can You Go?” Turn up the thermostat one degree a day and see who’s willing to crank it up the next day. Even if your crew lasts only a few degrees, they’ll have made a difference for the planet.

Shower tunes. By now you’ve probably drilled into your kids’ heads that singing “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands is just the right amount of time to help prevent coronavirus infections. To reduce water waste, use that musical approach for showers as well. Have your kids each create a playlist between five and seven minutes long. The average shower lasts eight minutes, so shaving even just a minute off of your normal routine could save five gallons of water—almost as much that’s used during a dishwasher cycle. When that last song comes on, your kids will know it’s time for the final rinse.

Greener plate. Cooking at home more? That’s not only healthier, but it’s also an opportunity to cut back on water waste by trying more plant-based meals. According to the United States Geological Survey, a quarter pound of burger meat takes 460 gallons of water to make (water grows the crops that feed the cattle), but one plant-based burger only requires about 60 gallons of water. To add more veggies to your family’s plate, bring your kids to the farmers market or grocery store. Have each person pick a color and find as many of those foods as they can. (Grape ice pops don’t count!) Then give a day off dish-washing duty to whoever comes up with the next family-favorite veggie-based dinner.

Rethink online orders. You’re probably ordering more online lately. To reduce packaging waste on internet orders, save items in your cart until you’re ready to make a big order, then select the option to group your items together. This prevents your items from coming in individual boxes.

Trash talk. Give each family member their own wastebasket for the week, and have them write down everything they throw away. (But not food scraps: Here’s how to compost them instead of trashing.) Then at the end of the week, see what everyone’s written down. Takeout utensils and condiment packets from to-go orders? Next time, ask the restaurant to nix the waste. (Here’s a pdf checklist to help kids write a letter to restaurants about plastic waste.) Paper napkins? Ask each of your kids to pick a fabric, then cut out squares to create reusable cloths.