I live in an apartment with roommates and will probably stay in this living situation for a few more years. How do I make the transition to a more environmentally conscious style of living without annoying them, or making them think I’m weird? For example, I really want to begin composting, but I doubt they would welcome a box full of dirt and worms indoors, no matter how hard I tried to persuade them. I’d also like us to switch over to earth-friendly cleaning supplies, dishwasher detergent, bleach-free toilet paper, etc., but these items usually cost more than the cheap stuff. Since we are all broke-asses around here, we always buy the cheap stuff.

Right now we keep our heat turned pretty low and we recycle, so my roommates are onboard in those areas. I just don’t know how to institute some practices that might require more adjustment.

Jessica Thompson
Chicago, Ill.

I sat down to respond to your letter, and at first spent hours (OK, maybe minutes) looking for specific cheap-o eco products to recommend to you. But the most important part of your letter is not the specifics, but the general — how do we turn other people on to the idea of living more sustainably, rather than the nitpicky details? Well, which of us ain’t thought about that problem? How can you express the urgency without being naggy? How can you inspire people without freaking them the hell out?

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I’d say the best way to go about it is to talk to your housemates about your interest in these subjects — not as an authoritative knowledge-haver, but an inquisitive change-seeker. I’m guessing you live with other smart, somewhat- to highly-informed folks, so talking about stuff you’re reading or watching or thinking about can and should be part of what happens in your house. So, starting conversations like, “I’ve been reading about the toxicity of dryer sheets, and boy, it sounds wack” or “An Inconvenient Truth came in on Netflix this week — you want to watch it later?” Talking about the personal economic and health benefits can’t hurt either. In short, I think as long as you don’t sound self-righteous or know-it-all-y, people are receptive.

The good news is that caring about how the way your life affects the planet is getting more hip, less hippie, if the Oscars last week or general Hollywood buzz means anything.

But enough with the philosophizing. What about some actual to-dos for brokeasses?

Though inviting a colony of worms into your home might not be possible for quite some time, I think there are plenty of ways to make subtle, amenable changes in your house that your roommates might not even notice — nay, might even appreciate. I would hold off on asking about some crawly housemates for a while, but you can look into other options, like one of these fancy-pants composters or an outdoor compost bin. Or you could see what sort of other composting options exist in your area. Some cities will let you put your compost out with your yard waste, and in other areas you can find community gardens, neighborhood horticulturists, or other folks who want to take the composty goodness off your hands. I’m not really sure what the SOP is in Chicago, but in the last city I lived in, we had to pay for the trash we sent to the dump by the pound, so everyone in my house was more than happy to compost — and I suspect your roommates will be, too, if that’s the case. The pay-to-purge system seems to have many benefits, if you ask me.

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But to be more general, there are plenty of un-wack-seeming ways to green up your house and housemates. And there are plenty of affordable options. Some simple ones you already seem to have covered — sharing your house with others, keeping the temperature low, recycling. And a pretty clear case can be made to your fellow brokeass housemates on a lot of the energy-related issues. Keeping the temperature low is easier on everyone’s wallet. To take it a step further, you can replace your light bulbs, perform a DIY energy-audit on your bachelorette pad. You can caulk your windows! You can do your damndest to find used (or good deals on new) energy-efficient appliances when you need another gadget or when something you have expires. These able appliances can pass for “normal,” and surely won’t offend your housemates. You can install timers and motion detectors on your lighting, so they’re not left running when they’re not needed.

As for cleaning supplies/hygienic products and getting the housemates to pony up for what may be pricer goods, the best idea is probably to buy in bulk, shop around, check online, and look for deals. Edible Nature, Wellness Grocer, and Kokopelli’s Green Market are a few good online and bulk options. A good stand-by household cleaner for brokeasses is Simple Green (I swear, this stuff cleans anything). And cheap and oh-so-DIY are the four horsemen of the apocalypse for germs and grossness: vinegar, castile soap, baking soda, and water. Other eco-friendly cleaning tips are here and here.

So, the gist of this all is to talk to your roommates, do as much as you can within your means, and make compromises. And maybe causally leaving some relevant reading materials and DVDs out on the coffee table couldn’t hurt either.

Concerned about the environment but don’t have the economic means to buy your way to carbon neutrality? Need some ideas on how to be savvy about the earth and your dollar? Direct your questions, comments, and ideas to ksheppard@grist.org. And remember, as the old saying goes, it’s better to be broke than to further the break-up of the Arctic ice shelf.

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