If you're gonna go green, you might as well have some fun with it.
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If you’re gonna go green, you might as well have some fun with it.

Each year, the New Year’s holiday brings us more than just a gingerbread hangover and a metric ton of empty champagne bottles — it serves up a natural opportunity to pause and take stock of our lives. It’s that special time of year when we look back at where we’ve been and make plans for a brighter future. And it’s no different for the Greenie Pig.

You see, I’ve learned a thing or two from this year’s worth of green living challenges — lessons that I’ve boiled down into five simple guidelines for a cleaner, more sustainable 2013. I think they’ll help me as I embark on another year of eco-experimentation — and I hope they’ll help you on your own green lifestyle quests. (What? You’re not on such a quest? What are you doing here? Perhaps you’d like something like this instead.)

1. Keep an open mind.

Some sustainability steps are easy — CFL bulbs? Why not? But others sound tough, gross, or just plain crazy. Some, you fear, will exile you to the island of misfit, hemp-clad fruitarians. I beg you, don’t be so quick to judge.

First off, you can pull off the hard ones. After I clocked a dismal 10-minute time on my shower, a few simple tweaks got me down to a three-minute suds session.

And the gross ones? Not really that bad. I cringed at the thought of dumpster diving at first: Surely, all that awaited me at the bottom of the big green bin was rotting, castaway chard and mold-speckled dinner rolls. But then I took a deep breath and dove, and came up with some fresh, sweet-smelling, perfectly good food (for free).

And the super-hippie stuff, like homemade cleaning products? Hey, turns out the stuff works like a nontoxic, cheap, utterly effective charm. I won’t ever buy another bottle of all-purpose cleaner or laundry detergent. All this stuff works. I only know that ‘cause I tried it.

2. Take it one step at a time.

When you’re trying new stuff, though, don’t get too carried away. If you wanted to get in shape, you wouldn’t get up off the couch and run a marathon, right? It should be the same deal with lifestyle changes. If you average 85 miles of driving a day, don’t try to quit your car cold turkey; better to start with a smaller goal, like taking the bus three times a week, and scale up. (This goes double for any steps that include pee rags.)

Bite off more than you can chew, though, and you’re bound to get discouraged, mutter “f*#*@ this,” and give up. From there, it’s a slippery slope to buying a Hummer, tossing your empty Fritos bags on the ground, and actively voting against the interests of baby seals. So take it slow, k?

3. Add — don’t subtract.

Here’s the thing about green practices: They won’t stick unless they add something to your life. Your new product/habit/philosophy has to make something better, or it’ll fade like so many discarded New Year’s resolutions. Taking the train to work is totally awesome if it lets you bypass rush-hour traffic, save gas money, and eschew the circus that is urban parking. But if the only public transit in your area involves two buses and a shuttle and takes three times as long, well, who’s really going to embrace that one?

Living a more sustainable life is about making improvements — for you and for the planet — not adding needless inconveniences to your days. So let’s say public transit sucks in your town. Maybe taking the bus is out, but can you organize a carpool? Jump on a bike? Agitate politically for transit options that don’t suck?

Sustainable practices have to make sense for widespread adoption. That exhausting, time-sucking bathtub laundry gadget that didn’t really even clean my clothes? Yeah, not going to keep up with that one. But easily homemade laundry detergent, upcycled trash, lovingly handmade Christmas gifts, and plenty more brightened my life this year. Those are the improvements with staying power.

4. Don’t ban anything but bans themselves.

Surprise! Strict taboos — be they on processed food, fossil fuels, Faberge eggs, what have you — have the curious effect of making your desire for said object approximately 12 times more intense. You will obsess over this verboten treasure, and, unless you have superhuman willpower, ultimately give in, sending yourself into a shame spiral.

But, as I discovered on my two-mile challenge, a shift in attitude can make all the difference. You’re not banning car travel, you’re embracing every opportunity to walk instead. Don’t banish processed foods entirely; take up the challenge to eat fresh, healthy options whenever possible. Don’t say, “I’m not going to buy anything new, ever”; say, “Before I buy something new, can I fix, reuse, or borrow instead?

Notice how this attitude can be interpreted as adding, not subtracting? Eh? What lovely synergy.

5. Don’t be a jerk (or, how to set a good example).

When you set off on a greening frenzy, your friends and family are bound to notice. They will probably have one of two reactions to this: “Wow, what a cool idea! I’m going to try it!” or “What an insufferable gasbag.” Which one it is depends entirely on you.

Sure, it’s natural to get excited when you adopt a great new habit. But lecturing your neighbors about their lack of a compost pile, or judging your sister-in-law harshly because she doesn’t stock her bathroom with recycled toilet paper, or rolling your eyes when your friend confesses he sometimes drives three blocks to the grocery store — these will not do much for your popularity. What’s worse, this judgmental attitude will probably turn people off of trying these changes themselves.

Lead by example, not by volume. Be encouraging, not a know-it-all.

There you have it. Five simple principles. What about you — got any green mantras to live by? What works for you? Tell us below. And here’s to a cleaner, better 2013, all.