Published: April 18, 2019

Small—But Real—Changes You Can Make to Save the Planet

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but let’s start somewhere.

As a natural history museum, we use our knowledge of the past to see how Earth changes over time—and to inform our actions in the future. When the US withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, we joined other cultural institutions across the country in renewing our commitment to Earth’s future in the face of climate change.

But we can’t do it alone. Even if you’re feeling like “just one person,” we can make a difference together through seemingly small actions. There are many ways to integrate sustainable habits into your routine, depending on your schedule, home, and budget. In some cases, saving the planet also means saving money—what’s not to love?

BYOB: Bring your own (water) bottle

As of 2017, humans were collectively buying one million plastic bottles a minute across the globe. We know plastic bottles are recyclable, but the vast majority don’t make it there—and even recycling uses up energy. If you haven’t already, take yourself out of that equation by investing in a reusable water bottle that you can refill anywhere you go.

Lots of places—including our restaurants at the Field—give a discount on coffee when you bring your own mug. We’re diverting 75 percent of our restaurant waste, in part thanks to reusable containers along with food compost and compostable utensils.

Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee, and other chains and independent coffee shops also give discounts for using your own mug. Already have a reusable bottle? Cut out plastic utensils by stashing a set of silverware from home at your workplace or purchasing lightweight bamboo utensils that you can carry on the go.

Addressing climate change isn’t a sacrifice. In fact, it can greatly improve the quality of our lives.

Dr. Jonathan Foley, global environmental scientist

Eat vegetarian more often

You don't have to bea vegetarian to eat like one. Even if you’re not ready to go full vegan, think about changes you can reasonably make.  

Start by reducing red meat or eating vegetarian one more day of the week. Livestock accounts for a whopping 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, and while that’s a large-scale problem, change happens on an individual level as we make new decisions about what we buy and eat every day. Not only can a vegetarian diet bring you health benefits, but collectively, plant-based diets can transform health on a large scale and cut health care costs.

At the Field Museum’s Bistro and Explorer Cafe, over half of our menu items are vegetarian-friendly. Thirty-two percent of the food we offer is locally sourced, meaning it comes from Illinois and the states that directly border us.  

Feeling adventurous? Give bugs a try. We’re not joking; they’re high protein and low environmental impact.

When I’m shopping for food, I look for produce that is local and organic. This helps reduce food miles, support our local farmers, and also support a sustainable agricultural food system.

Carter O’Brien, Sustainability Officer, Field Museum

Break the laundry cycle

We can probably agree that laundry is a chore. But a few changes could mean you spend less money doing it.

Use cold water, don’t wash loads that are only half full, and avoid the dryer altogether. Clothes dryers use a significant amount of energy to create heat—almost as much energy as refrigerators and dishwashers combined. Plus, air-drying is gentler on your clothes and may help them last longer.

Consider buying clothes made of natural fibers or purchasing a special washing bag that captures microfibers. Synthetic clothing sheds microfibers in the wash—these are tiny bits of plastic that could ultimately end up (and add up) in the ocean.

Double-check your recycling

You know you should recycle—but are you doing it effectively?

First, make sure you know who does your recycling and what they’ll accept so that you can avoid “wishcycling”: adding something you’re unsure of to the recycling bin in the hopes that it’ll make it to the right place. The latest advice is, "when in doubt, throw it out."  

You might use one of those blue bins that the city of Chicago provides, or if you live in a building with five or more units, you likely have a separate arrangement with a recycling company. Depending on who picks up your recycling, you might do single-stream—place all recyclables (glass, aluminum, cardboard, etc.) in one container—or you may be asked to sort those items into different containers, called source-separated recycling.

Good practices for both types of recycling include:

  • Empty and rinse all containers.
  • Be on the lookout for “tanglers” like plastic bags, cords, wires, and coat hangers. These and other long or thin materials should never go in the recycling because they’ll jam recycling equipment.
  • Flatten cardboard boxes, and think twice about pizza boxes. If there’s grease, either throw the box away, tear off that portion, or even add it to a compost bin.
  • Talk to your building manager. Don’t know who your service provider is? Noticing that some Styrofoam snuck into your shared recycling? Ask for more information and request better signage. It’ll ultimately make everyone’s role in the recycling process a little easier.
  • Find out where to safely dispose of electronics, rechargeable batteries, light bulbs, paint, and chemicals. None of these items should go into your regular recycling or trash, but your local grocery, hardware, and electronic stores might accept them. Consider turning it into a shared responsibility with friends and neighbors by taking turns doing drop-offs.
  • When your incandescent bulbs burn out, replace them with LED lighting. They use significantly less energy and last much longer: up to 50,000 hours. That’s nearly six years if the light is on all the time. There must be a joke in here somewhere, but for now, just know you’re saving your future self from changing light bulbs.

Unsure about whether to recycle something? Brush up on your knowledge with Recycle by City’s quiz and guide to Chicago recycling. Lastly, when you’re at a restaurant or other public place, look for or ask about their recycling—it does make a difference. At the Field, visitors are helping us divert 57 percent of our building’s waste from landfills, a large portion thanks to materials that go into our single-stream recycling bins around the museum.

Get outside

If you commute to work, try to take public transportation, bike, or walk when you can. A few Field Museum staffers said they change up their walking routes to the train station or bus stop; it’s an easy way to make the walk interesting and enjoy different parts of your neighborhood.

If you’re ready to get your hands dirty and support local Chicagoland nature, volunteer with us at one of our upcoming habitat restoration days. Enjoying the great outdoors is also a social activity and mood booster. Try The Brain Scoop's approachable tips, then get out from behind the screen.

We’ve got a window of time, and if we all take action now, we can start turning things around and make the world a better place.


Vote for Earth

No election is too small to cast a vote for the environment. Look for candidates committed to acting on climate change, protecting national parks and other natural areas, and reducing carbon emissions. Unsure about the current issues up for debate? Check out Ballotpedia’s environmental policy summary or the Illinois Environmental Council’s key issues.  

We’ll keep doing our part for Earth’s future here at the Field, and we hope you’ll join us. Tell us about one commitment you’re making to the planet @FieldMuseum. We’re #OnItTogether.