Going green at home: gradual changes can make a world of difference

Photos by Audrey Chang/Town Crier
In an effort to make their home more environmentally friendly, the Chang family of Los Altos shops with reusable bags, above, and often purchase clothes made from remnant textiles, below.

Anyone who walks into my house would probably notice the canvas totes by the front door, the multiple recycling bins and maybe even the drawer packed with plastic bags.

Motivated by climate change and the increased need for sustainable habits, my family continues to make efforts toward creating an environmentally friendly home.

We are by no means perfect, but we have learned a great deal in the process, determining which changes are easier and more feasible than others - and which best suit our household.

Many of the changes were gradual; I didn’t notice that they had become habits until I thought deliberately about our family’s actions and impact. But we choose to make it this way: much of the work my family does to move toward sustainability revolves around making sustainable habits easy. When the environmentally beneficial option is faster, more convenient or accessible, it’s easier to make a better decision and form sustainable habits.

Our trek toward sustainability is still a work in progress, but I’d like to share the changes my family has made so far in the hopes it will inspire others to begin their journey as well.

Household changes and habits

• Reusable-paper box, plastic-bag drawer. Whenever I need scratch paper, I head to our designated box in the living room. Any leftover one-sided paper is placed in the box so that it can be reused by other family members. This system makes reusing paper an easy and beneficial habit. The box itself isn’t fancy; it’s made of a flat gift box, previously used to package clothing. Similar to our reusable-paper box, we have a drawer in the kitchen to store reusable plastic bags, usually leftover from shopping. Tying the bags into knots keeps them from tangling.

• Keep recycling at hand. At the base of each desk is a little recycling bin. We keep our main recycling tub in the kitchen so that people can empty their bins while grabbing snacks or drinks. This also conveniently places the recycling next to the sink for easy disposal of rinsed, empty juice bottles or containers. An actual bin isn’t a requirement, though. I repurpose a mug.

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• A sustainable closet. To reduce my closet’s impact on the environment, I focus on rebuilding with each new piece I purchase, rather than splurging on sustainable items. I particularly like brands such as Cotopaxi, Patagonia’s Worn Wear collection, or Rothy’s - they use remnant textiles from other companies or other recycled materials. I buy from companies like these because it’s important to provide a market for items made from recycled materials. Often, sustainable brands have expensive items due to the process of repurposing old material. Buying second-hand is an effective way to reduce one’s footprint and find clothing without breaking the bank.

Infrastructure changes and city programs

In our house, replacing old light bulbs with LEDs and choosing low-flow showerheads have been easy ways to reduce our electricity and water consumption because they don’t require behavioral change.

However, replacing all hardware at once with sustainable options is often intimidating due to its expense and logistic difficulties. Our family works toward sustainable architecture and hardware by prioritizing the environment when updating or repairing our house - this usually applies to larger investments.

For example, when our older gas-powered car broke down recently, we invested in an electric vehicle as its replacement. When our toilet began leaking, we replaced it with a low-flow toilet to reduce our water consumption. We find the slow transition toward sustainability manageable.

Below, I list a few hardware changes that my family either has incorporated or is looking into.

• Reducing water consumption. Low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets all can contribute to reducing water use. Also, periodically checking for leaks can both save water and minimize your water bill. Many energy and water providers in the area have rebate programs to encourage sustainable consumption. Silicon Valley Clean Energy incentivizes the switch from a natural gas water heater to an electric Heat Pump Water Heater by offering rebates through its FutureFit Program. Cal Water offers rebates for high-efficiency toilets, clothes washers, irrigation controllers and sprinkler nozzles. The Santa Clara Valley Water District offers rebates for low-water landscaping, greywater system installation, submeter installation and private well installation. For more information on any of these programs, visit the organizations’ respective websites.

• Exploring energy conservation and generation. Switching to LEDs is a quick way to reduce energy consumption, but make sure to dispose of old light bulbs correctly; they’re considered hazardous waste. Los Altos Hardware in downtown Los Altos accepts CFLs and fluorescent tubes.

Looking ahead

I’m proud of my family’s efforts toward integrating sustainability into our daily lives through small steps. But even with what we’ve accomplished so far, we are always looking to improve and would love to do more. That’s why I’ve made a list below of a few actions we’d like to pick up. Hopefully, it inspires you to make a list of your own.

• Plan meals or purchase food mindfully. An immense amount of food waste is produced each year. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that we waste approximately 31% of the food available for consumption, equivalent to 133 billion pounds and nearly $162 billion lost. My family would like to cook and purchase only what we can finish.

• Incorporate compost into our garden. We have a small garden in our backyard, from which we can harvest homegrown kale, basil, mint, strawberries and more. Mission Trail Waste system, our local waste management service, is happy to deliver a complimentary backyard compost bin or worm bin on request; we haven’t yet used this opportunity. They also conduct compost giveaways as directed by the city. My family would love to integrate our home compost system into our garden to make use of the organics we generate.

• Use sustainable toiletries. I’d love to transition to shampoo bars and solid toothpaste, especially because toothpaste containers are often not recyclable (due to their composition of plastic and aluminum) and generate a large amount of waste. Alternatively, I’d be willing to try TerraCycle, Colgate’s Oral Care Recycling Program, where people can ship their oral care product packaging waste. However, I’m not sure if the environmental benefit of a few toothpaste tubes would offset the carbon emissions from shipping the waste itself.


There are always ways to improve, and often it’s hard to know where to start. I suggest having a conversation with your family about which areas of sustainability to focus on.

I recommend choosing and integrating a few behavioral changes into your daily routine, in addition to accomplishing doable tasks sooner rather than later, such as changing light bulbs and showerheads. After a few weeks, reassess your household and have another quick conversation. What did you do well and how can you do better? Don’t forget to celebrate successes.

I do worry about the future of our planet, and my generation’s future. Even though our environmental efforts may not seem like much individually, the cumulative impact of our actions has the potential to save our beautiful world.

If we’re able to control our footprint and the demand of the market by voting with our wallets and action, I believe that we can take on climate change one household at a time.

Audrey Chang is co-president of the Los Altos High School Green Team.

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