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My original title was ‘How To Be Sustainable When Living In A Dirty Polluting City’. The one I went with describes the blog better but the OG one describes the mood better. Don’t cha think? 

 Long before my days of sustainable living, this story happened. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this but this is a safe space. 

My sister and I grew up in a small town; one day we were walking around a big city in Europe.  As a smell wave hit us, I told her I liked that smell because it reminded me I was in a big city. And that’s so exciting! 

I said, “I don’t know what it is but I only smell this in big cities, it’s not pleasant but it smells like wet laundry.” 

She looked at me and responded, “Lauren, that’s sewage.” 

For the full effect, make sure you put a lot of disgust and judgment in the intonation when you read that. Add an eye roll if you can. She’s younger but acts older.

And honestly, I think about that every day. Now I live in Chicago and smell that wet laundry smell on a regular basis. Instead of being excited, I am vividly reminded it’s just sewage.  (If you don’t live here, Chicago is not a smelly city but you get a whiff every now and then). 

If we’re being honest, sustainable living is hard in a city

  • I don’t have a car
  • I don’t have a bulk store near me 
  • We didn’t have a bulk option at all until recently 
  • Biking is great for about half the year. The rest of the year your fingers will get frostbite or your tires will freeze
  • And if you’re renting, there aren’t a lot of efficiency changes you can implement. After all, the property doesn’t even belong to you and you know the landlord doesn’t give AF.

I LOVE following people who grow their own food and have all these cool sustainable things — I am not going to lie to you. But at some point it gets a little exhausting because it starts to feel like I’m not doing enough. 

  • I can’t grow my own food
  • I can’t install solar panels
  • I can’t buy an electric car
  • I can’t replace my appliances with HE ones
  • I have no control over the fact that the building lobby is floor to ceiling glass windows with no shades. It’s always warm (80) even though the air conditioner is always set to 70. I’ve checked. 
  • I can’t keep a bunch of old jars because I just don’t have the storage space
  • I can’t buy everything in bulk because — no car, no bulk store, no space

But there’s a lot us city people can do! And I firmly believe that every little bit counts.

If you feel like living sustainably in a city is impossible, here’s my (unasked for, unexpert) advice. 

17 Ways to live more sustainably in a city

  1. Use Public Transportation/Bikes/Scooters

You’ll really have to let go of any anxiety you have around time (which is probably good for your mental health). But I love taking the bus because I get to see new neighborhoods I wouldn’t otherwise have been in. I always bookmark cool looking bars and stores that I want to come back to (and do!).

  1. Use Your AirCon Wisely

Basically use your air conditioner sparingly. I know this feels very anti-american, but air conditioners are not great. (I highly recommend reading this article). They’re especially not great when it’s super hot outside which causes the electricity grid to work overtime. And they’re especially especially not great when you’re trying to cool a glass-enclosed space. Which leads me to my next point. 

  1. Close Your Blinds When The Sun Is The Hottest

If you’re here, you might already do this. Or, you’re trying to save money and do this. Pull the shades! It’s crazy to me that buildings are made from wall-to-wall glass. In my old apartment we have large windows but wall-to-wall ones; from 2pm-7pm our home bakes. I quickly learned to pull the shades down which helps keep it cooler and requires the aircon to run less. Here me out: wouldn’t it be cool if there were solar-powered window shades? 

  1. Join A City Composting Program/ Get Your Building To Sign Up

Have you ever Googled “your city + composting”? You might be surprised at what they have! Chicago alone has several options.
Private

Nonprofit:

I’m sure there are other options, but these three are great for urban dwellers. It’s a shock seeing how much food waste you create with each meal! If you’re feeling brave, you can also get into vermicomposting. I’ve asked and have been told they don’t smell at all! 

  1. Hit Up A Farmers Market

For anyone who lives in a place that has winter, use your summer months wisely and hit up the local farmer’s markets. It’s a great way to get out, support local farms, and BYO produce bags to cut back on plastic. Chicago has markets in almost every neighborhood; and some are definitely worth traveling for (on public transportation of course). I was a little disappointed in West Loop’s because most things were pre-packaged in plastic.  

  1. Reusable Produce Bags > Plastic Ones 

I love my reusable produce bags. I’ve accumulated both the solid and the mesh kind and they’re amazing. I’m not going to lie, I also just grab produce and don’t put it in anything and wash it when I get home. I also go out of my way to buy produce that is not packaged in plastic, or at least has minimal packaging. 

  1. Go Secondhand! 

If you’re a city dweller, it’s likely you already take advantage of all the amazing vintage and secondhand stores your city has to offer. I have to remind myself fairly often that thrifting is not the solution to fast fashion. So when I need something, I try to look for pieces that are versatile and will last a long time. I also try to not buy fast fashion brands secondhand (which is becoming harder than you might think!). And although it’s harder without a car, I try to get certain pieces of furniture from secondhand stores or ‘buy nothing’ Facebook groups. 

  1. Take Your Own Tupperware For Leftovers

I usually forget! BUT, the last time I went out I remembered and it was the best feeling. That time I took a small container with me that fit in my bag, but I’ve been known to take my collapsible Stojo cup and stuff it full of leftover food. I’m not going to lie, I felt like one bad-ass sustainable bitch carrying that home. 

  1. BYO Coffee Mug/Straw

Stojo does have a small cup that is coffee mug sized, but I use a Yeti swag mug I got from an old company. I go to a lot of cafes and the only one who has turned me down in 2022 is the Whole Foods so it shouldn’t be a problem! I also think Starbucks (Chicago) officially announced you can bring back reusable cups. Trust me, skip the app and save a cup, lid, and straw.

  1. Carry A Reusable Water Bottle With You

I keep my Stojo folded up in my bag and carry it with me everywhere to use for water (or food). I have less luck with refilling it with water than I do with my coffee cup but it works sometimes! You can go to a restaurant and fill up on any water you didn’t drink. Either way it’s a great way to try to save yourself from using — and throwing away — plastic bottles.

  1. BYO Utensils 

I actually started doing this by accident. We went to a fast foodish restaurant and they had these really cool mini sporks with a spoon on one side and a fork on the other. I took one home with me and kept it in my bag and it has come in handy so much! Mostly for ice cream.

  1. Grow Some Houseplants 

Apparently, it’s a myth houseplants can filter your air BUT they are good for your mental health! I’m not good at keeping plants alive and I have cats who like to eat them so you’ll get no judgment from me. I do have a few snake plants I’ve managed to keep alive and I can report they bring me joy.

  1. If You’re Brave, Grow Your Own Herbs

Similar to growing houseplants, take a shot at growing your own herbs or planting a window garden! Right now I’m trying to regrow some green onions in the fridge which is going better than it ever has been before. There’s something about growing even a tiny amount of my own food that makes me feel awesome. 

  1. Junk Mail Is Now Scrap Paper

This one may be a little extreme, BUT hear me out. When I get junkmail, which is everyday, I look for the ones that have blank sides (and no sensitive info) and keep them to use as scratch paper. This helps me from using so many sticky notes and buying empty pads of paper. 

  1. Air Dry Your Clothes 

Unpopular opinion but I love air dried clothes. Maybe not apartment air-dried but I work with what I can. The first time I experienced it was in college at a friend’s house who’s mom dried everything outside. Amazing! I then experienced it again in Spain where the apartment I stayed in didn’t have a dryer at all. Today, I have a small drying rack that’s big enough for my clothes and towels (separately). I try to air dry as much as I can, which is a little harder in the winter. I don’t know if it matters in a building, but I feel good about it and I’m preparing for life outside an apartment one day.

  1. Use Bamboo Or Recycled Paper Toilet Paper 

Paper is highly recyclable (awesome). But so much of the world’s forests are being cut down so we can *literally* wipe our asses once and throw it away (not awesome). Bamboo toilet paper is a great alternative. I don’t want to research the concerns I’ve heard about bamboo becoming a monocrop. So I go with Who Gives A Crap’s toilet paper made from post consumer recycled paper!

  1. Bye Bye Plastic

And finally, plastic swaps. There are so many ways you can be sustainable and eco-friendly and I feel like I didn’t touch on close to any of them. But for me, my journey is about trying to reduce my plastic consumption. It’s been a wild crazy ride and it will continue to be, but here are (some) of my favorite plastic swaps. 

  1. Shampoo Bars
  2. Body Soap Bars
  3. Refillable Hand Soap/Soap Bars (Refilled At Eco & the Flamingo)
  4. Refillable Laundry Powder
  5. Safety Razor (+black owned and blades can be refilled from anywhere)
  6. Dish Soap Bar
  7. Dish Brushes (plastic-free brushes)
  8. Water Filter Not Bottled Water
    1. I try not purchase a plastic water bottle unless it’s an emergency. I try to always have a reusable bottle with or without water on me at all times, but life happens. 

You don’t need to live in a smart city or a 15 minute city to practice sustainable city living. Although both would be really cool, it’s just not available to the majority of us.

My suggestion is to find what’s important to you. Whether that be reducing your food waste, cutting out plastic, reducing your carbon footprint, etc; find ways you can do that no matter where you live. You never know what you might find in the process! 

Happy sustainable city living! 

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How to be (more) sustainable living in a dirty city