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How to Live Sustainably in the Colder Months

These changes have a greater impact than you might think

By Elle Moulin

Thinking about how to live sustainably, conserve energy and ultimately save a few dollars can be challenging any time of the year. But it is especially troublesome when the temperature outside drops below freezing.

Living Sustainably
Credit: Elle Moulin for Next Avenue

There are some simple ways, though, to implement more environmentally-friendly practices into your life as we enter the chilly months.

Here are five ways to be more sustainable in the winter:

Seal Air Leaks

The small cracks and holes in a home’s building envelope (the physical separator between the conditioned and unconditioned area of a building) allow warm air to leak out and cold air to enter. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), if you add up the energy flow from the leaks and cracks in an average home, it's equivalent to leaving a window open every day of the year.

Environmental issues, specifically climate change, affect everyone, but particularly low-income people and marginalized communities.

Use rubber weather strips, window kits, caulk guns and foam rods to seal air leaks.

When looking for air leaks, start by investigating the front door and next, look to your windows, says Laura Oakleaf of the Cook County, Ill. sustainability office. Then, check your baseboards to see if you can caulk any areas to prevent future leakage.

Program Your Thermostat

Using a programmable thermostat lets you set the temperature in your home back to a lower level at different hours of the day, such as when you’re not home, or at night when you’re asleep.

This can have a significantly greater impact on energy saved than you might think. According to Oakleaf, lowering your thermostat by just 1 degree can decrease energy usage by 2%.

The U.S. Department of Energy says turning back your thermostat 7 to 10 degrees from the typical setting for eight hours a day can save you up to 10% a year on heating costs.

“By saving that energy, you are reducing the environmental impact of that energy consumption, which can be pretty substantial,” says Shane Stennes, director of sustainability at the University of Minnesota.

Maintain or Replace Heating Systems

At least once a year, have a contractor come to your home to do a routine check-up and perform any mandatory maintenance on your boiler, furnace or heat pump to ensure that the freezing weather won’t inflate your energy bill.

In addition to regular check-ups, you may also want to consider fully replacing equipment if it has been used for more than a decade, the EPA says.

“If your heating equipment is more than ten-years-old, it may be time for a replacement to a more energy-efficient unit. While initially an expensive investment, replacing old equipment with ENERGY STAR qualified equipment saves more energy and money in the long run,” according to the agency's website.


For heating equipment to be ENERGY STAR qualified, it must have energy performance among the top 25% of all similar products and be certified by an independent third-party to provide increased energy efficiency.

Use Nontoxic De-Icing Methods

Switching to nontoxic de-icing methods avoids creating hazardous waste during the snowy season.

Chloride, which is found in salt, has created increasing issues for our drinking water through its contamination of groundwater. A study by the University of Minnesota found that about 78% of salt applied in the Twin Cities for winter maintenance, for instance, is either transported to groundwater or remains in the local lakes and wetlands.

Chemical de-icers create hazards for animals, trees, shrubs and the environment in general. Antifreeze leaking from car engines, along with chemical de-icers that melt on driveways and roads can pollute surface water and groundwater through soil.

Because we rely on about a third of all groundwater for our drinking water, our de-icing choices have major impact on our water consumption.

Alternatives to chemical de-icers include clean clay cat litter, sand or fireplace/stove ash, according to the EPA.

Also: Avoid gasoline-powered snow removal machines and use electric ones instead. While they still consume energy, they don’t emit greenhouse gases. An alternative to both would be using snow shovels and brooms to clear your driveways and walkways.

Give Your Support to Charities

Environmental issues, specifically climate change, affect everyone, but particularly low-income people and marginalized communities, says Stennes.

“One of the ways people can be more sustainable in how they act is to look for charities and organizations that are helping to address those populations and those people who are disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice and environmental issues,” Stennes notes.

Finding groups to support gives the chance to find the humanity in the issue of sustainability. Some organizations include the Climate Justice Alliance; the Indigenous Environmental Network; the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice; GreenLatinos and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

Elle Moulin is a Minneapolis-based freelance photographer and an intern at Next Avenue. She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in photojournalism. Read More
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