February 19, 2024

5 Free Ways to Help the Planet: Beginning Your Conservation Journey

By Laura Merz
5 Free Ways to Help the Planet: Beginning Your Conservation Journey

Reduce, Reuse, Rewild: 5 Free Ways to Help the Planet

As a photographer focused on conservation issues, my lens captures both the breathtaking beauty of nature and the urgent need to protect it. While photography is the medium I choose to use to sharer those messages, in my personal life I have made many many changes to align my life and values to my vision for a better world. 

No one person is every going to be able to live sustainably with perfection - but that's not the goal! It's for thousands and millions of people to try to be better to our world in small ways, imperfectly. Small changes add up! 

So today, I want to share five simple and free strategies I personally use and love that easily reduce your environmental impact - with many more ideas to come!

1. Embrace Cloth Napkins and Dish Towels

Say goodbye to disposable paper towels and hello to eco-friendly alternatives you likely already own. 5 years ago, my family stopped buying paper napkins and paper towels. (Ok, we do keep 1 roll tucked away in the garage for emergencies like vomit and broken glass, but it's only there as a last resort).

We didn't go out and buy those "un-paper" towels or anything, we simply used traditional dishcloths and tea towels that we already had! By creating a system where we replace the towel and dishcloth each night, and wash them on a regular cycle, we completely eliminated our need for paper towel - which have a huge environmental impact in their creation.

We also swapped out single-use paper napkins for inexpensive cloth napkins. We already had several, and I sewed up a few more with scrap fabric, but these can be easily purchased inexpensively if you don't own them already.  Not only do these options minimize waste, but they also add a touch of elegance to your daily routine. We use them for everything - school and work lunches, family dinners, and picnics. With just 20 cloth napkins that are washed regularly (and still going strong), we have not bought paper napkins in over 4 years.

2. Educate Yourself on Local Recycling Rules

If you've ever looked at a piece of plastic and thought "that's probably recyclable" unfortunately you've fallen prey to the common problem of Wish-cycling. 

Almost all plastic bottles, containers and other packaging products will display the universal recycling symbol of three arrows forming a triangle. Inside the symbol, there is a number ranging from 1-7. Although manufacturers display the recycling symbol on their products, not all plastics are recyclable or may not be able to be recycled in your area.

Most recycling centers are only equipped to deal with certain "recycling numbers" - if other plastics are mixed into the load, it can cause an entire load to be ruined and disposed of. With hundreds of different recycling centers and zones across the US and Canada, the recycling rules in your area will not be the same as someone living in another area. The best way to find out is to visit the website for your local service. 

I know in my area that only 1, 2, and 6 plastics can be recycled, as well as tin cans and cardboard. This means I don't put anything else in the bins, and try my hardest not to purchase products with other numbers. There are plenty of work arounds for this when you're ready to take your conscious life to the next level - stay tuned for another post coming on this soon!

The goal here is simply to avoid throwing the wrong things in the recycling bin, or you could be completely undermining your own good intentions.

3. Reimagine Reusability

Before tossing out those non-recyclable containers, bottles, and jars, consider their potential for reuse. I've discovered innovative ways to repurpose these items, especially glass, which is not recyclable in my area! By giving these objects a second life, you'll not only reduce waste but also unleash your creativity in support of environmental conservation.

A few ways I've reused glass around my home: 

  • Wine bottles became drinking glasses with the help of a local glass cutter
  • Pasta sauce jars now store dried beans and legumes in my pantry
  • Glass spice jars get reused since I now by my spices from a bulk food store - i can simply decant the fresh spices into the existing jar. 
  • Pretty candle jars become holders for toiletries in the powder room. 

 Reusing plastic:

  • Clear plastic can double as a greenhouse for new seeds - and can be used again and again. 
  • Yogurt tubs are great for storing art supplies or for holding paint. 
  • Notebook covers can be cut down to make plant markers for the garden. 
  • Salad dressing containers can be rinsed and used to hold homemade dressings or sauces.

4. Shop Secondhand

Embrace sustainable fashion and consumerism by opting for secondhand goods. One of the biggest issues in our society right now is the overconsumption of goods, especially fast fashion. But the internet means there's also a great way to connect people to goods that need a new home. Using websites like ThredUp and Poshmark, I've found plenty of items that were like new or gently used that fit my style and my budget. It takes a little patience, but I've slashed my shopping spend by hundreds, supported small businesses and individual sellers, and found high-quality items I would have otherwise bought new - like Patagonia sweaters, Rothy's shoes, and even a wool coat I just adore. By purchasing pre-loved items, you'll not only save money but also reduce the demand for new products, contributing to a more sustainable future for our planet.



5. Recycle Electronics Responsibly

As a wildlife photographer reliant on technology, I understand the environmental impact of electronic waste. When I upgrade my computer or camera, or update my phone, there's inevitably one that needs to be disposed of. Rather than trashing old electronics and batteries, I take the extra step to get them to an e-waste bin (BestBuy is a great place to find these). Electronic recycling helps to extract any useable materials -- like metals -- from the product that can be reused. 

Why is this so important? Mining for the materials to create electronic circuit boards and chips has a huge environmental impact - especially on gorillas. These gentle giants live in the only area of the world where coltan (a key component of circuit boards) can be mined. Mining for these metals also contributes to huge social issues across the world and has been linked to ongoing war and social oppression -- so by disposing of e-waste responsibly, you're helping in a small way to steer our world away from the extraction of "new" metals. 


Bonus: Save yourself a few hours this May!

Consider participating in "No-Mow May" in which all you have to do is not mow your lawn from May 1-30th. Why does this matter? 

Wild bees (who are highly threatened, compared to Honeybees) begin to emerge in the spring but struggle to find food before flowers begin to bloom in full force. Simply allowing your lawn to grow (and hopefully you're not using pesticides!) will give the bees and other pollinators a chance to find something to eat in those early spring grasses. 

You can learn more about the No Mow May initiative here. 



Our societal journey to becoming friendlier to our world has been slow to start, and it depends on lots of people choosing to make small changes. While some changes might feel easy, others may feel difficult in your life - choose your "Why" and start to see the changes you can make, even if it's one at a time.

These five free strategies are suggestions for starting your journey into a more sustainable lifestyle, which can make a tangible difference in our collective efforts to protect the planet. As a wildlife photographer passionate about conservation, I encourage you to join me in embracing sustainable practices that support the environment. Together, let's capture the beauty of nature while preserving it for future generations.

1 comment

  • Gina Touch on March 21, 2024

    Hi Laura – I’m a co-worker of Mike’s, recently retired. You have a beautiful website and do amazing work – your photography is truly stunningI I enjoyed reading your blog – fantastic information regarding recycling and take care of our world. Thank you for sharing – I look forward to following you and seeing your North American work … Thank you for doing what you do!


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