By Sasha Lekach
Moving forward requires focus. Mashable’s Social Good Series is dedicated to exploring pathways to a greater good, spotlighting issues that are essential to making the world a better place.
So you want to live a cleaner, greener, more sustainable life?
OK, let’s do this!
But suddenly giving up meat completely, or never buying single-use plastic again, is easier said than done. To make aspects of your life more sustainable, it’s best to start small and build on those changes until you’ve incorporated healthier habits (for the planet and yourself) into everyday choices. And it’s important to note that while you can lessen your personal impact, meaningful change will only come with widespread adoption by large companies.
You can embark on your sustainable journey in many different ways, and accessible, mostly free technology is there to help you do that. Here are some things you can do paired with apps (and a few websites) to jumpstart your greener lifestyle, no matter where you choose to start.
Apps to help you go vegetarian
Going vegan or vegetarian is a big commitment, but if you stick with it, you’ll be noticeably reducing your environmental impact. Raising animals for meat requires significant resources (most notably for cow, goat, and sheep farms) — for instance, 1,800 gallons of water for every pound of beef. Fruits and vegetables take a fraction of that. A meat-free diet can cut back on the amount of water used to grow and raise your food by 55 percent.
But since ingredients like honey, milk, or meat byproducts, like gelatin, sneak into a lot of food items, sometimes it’s not so easy to tell if a food is vegan or not. That’s where apps like Is it vegan?, come in. Type the UPC, or Universal Product Code, of a packaged item (like Oreo cookies, for example) from its barcode into the free app, or simply scan the barcode. A “vegan-o-meter” reports whether your item is fully vegan or not at all. The app works for measuring vegetarian products as well with a vegetarian meter. The app only works for foods that have a barcode, but that’s generally where you’ll find it most useful anyway.
Another free app that’ll confirm you aren’t eating any animal products is Vegan Pocket, which also lets you scan packaged items with a barcode. The app has a section for vegan recipes, too.
Once you’ve committed to a vegan lifestyle or to eating fewer animal products, recipe apps give ideas on what to cook and prepare without relying on a meat protein as the main dish. Here are a few good vegetarian apps to try:
Green Kitchen ($3.99) — This recipe-filled app includes ingredient lists and step-by-step instructions for veggie-only dishes.
Veggie Weekend (free) — Another recipe app, this has more than 100 ideas for vegans and vegetarians. Each recipe page has a digital timer and nutrition information.
Easy Vegetarian (free) — For Android users only, this offers a collection of more than 200 recipes, each with a shopping list.
For more detailed meal planning, the free Vegetarian Meal Plan app does just that: helps you build shopping lists for your week of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks selected ahead of time. You won’t slip up, since you’ll be prepared with a stocked-up fridge and pantry.
Apps to help you eat less meat
Even if you don’t go full vegetarian or vegan, it’s still helpful to eat less meat. The free Less app is about helping you reduce the amount of meat you eat, not eliminating it entirely. It lets you keep track of when you eat meat, and which type you’ve consumed, in a calendar-like tracker. You’ll get feedback on your environmental impact for, ideally, some positive reinforcement: Who doesn’t like to hear they helped save gallons of water or acres of the rainforest? The app also sends push notifications asking if you’ve stayed away from a meaty meal to help remind you of your goal.
Another free meat tracker app is No Meat Today, which displays a calendar of your meat-less days and calls out when you went ham on some, well, ham. You set your own target meat-diet, so whether you’re trying to be more flexitarian (that’s a diet with some meat, but often veggie-only) or keep to fish, the app will confirm you’re striking the right balance or highlight where you can do better.
Even if you only do Meatless Mondays, going one day a week without meat in your meals, you can make a difference in your personal sustainability. Plus, fake meat options, like tasty burgers from Beyond and Impossible, almost make lowering your consumption of the real stuff too easy.
Apps to help eat sustainably
For those moments when you don’t know if the sushi you ordered is part of the problem, contributing to overfishing, species decimation, or other disruptions to the ocean ecosystem and habitats, turn to some apps.
The free Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app is like those old-school wallet guides that tell you which fish to choose and which to avoid for the sake of the planet, but it’s handily on your phone. Search for different fish names or sushi dishes in the app, which then helps you make decisions of what to buy when grocery shopping or while ordering from a restaurant. The app also gives restaurant and shopping recs for businesses that serve ocean-friendly seafood.
Beyond seafood decisions, apps like the free Chocolate List help you decide what type of food to buy (in this case, chocolate), based on sustainability. The free Seasonal Food Guide app helps you find local fruits and vegetables that are in season based on your location, so you aren’t buying produce that had to be shipped long distances just for your cucumber salad.
Waste less food with these apps
Wasted food means wasted energy, resources, and money. A recent report from waste services consulting firm RTS titled “Food Waste in America in 2020” notes that thrown-out food generates greenhouse gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, and chlorofluorocarbons. Rotting food in landfills produces nitrogen that can cause algae blooms. And the process of making all that food that ends up as waste, according to the World Wildlife Federation, causes the equivalent of emissions from 37 million cars. But there are things you can do to bring down the 80 billion pounds of food thrown away in the U.S. every year, including attempting to use all the food you buy and shopping smarter.
Food-sharing apps like Olio allow you to give your unused food to neighbors or find food you can use yourself. Take a picture of the food offering, whether it’s half a sack of potatoes or an extra loaf of bread, and post it on the app. Your listing will show up when other users search for what’s available nearby. After requests come in, you can arrange a meeting or drop-off to hand over your food. If you’re seeking someone’s leftovers, you can search the app for what’s around. Listings come up all over the world, but you may be the only one using the app near where you’re based. So a food swap may not be available, unless you get your neighbors on board, too.
More than 43 billion pounds of food from grocery stores goes to the trash every year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Counsel. But free apps like FlashFood provide information that helps you shop for items nearing their expiration dates, so you can save those granola bars from getting dumped. The app currently lists stores in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and throughout Canada, that post deals for about-to-expire food. If those locations work for you, you can buy through the app and then pick up your order at the participating store.
Apps to recycle better
You probably know how to put containers into bins, but recycling properly is actually harder than it should be. Americans recycle about 66 million tons each year, the EPA estimates. But the New York Times found that one major U.S. waste services company takes approximately 25 percent of what’s recycled and puts it into landfills, since it’s contaminated or not actually recyclable.
One way to make sure your recycling is actually recycled is to use an app like iRecycle, which helps you figure out how and where to recycle not-so-common items, like an old boombox or gardening equipment. Open the app and search for different items or categories (electronics, gardening, automotive, construction, and many more). If you’re in the U.S., a list and map will show all the different locations and facilities that accept those items near you. It’s not all newspapers and soda cans.
Shop package-free with help from these apps and websites
Only 3 million tons, or 8.4 percent, of the plastic generated each year in the U.S. gets recycled, according to EPA data. Better to use less of it to start with. Start reusing packaging and bags with the help of Zero Waste Home’s free app, which lets you search for stores that sell in bulk to help cut back on plastic and other packaging materials. You can filter for cleaning products, spices, baking items, and more.
There are other ways to shop package-free, like bringing your own bags or containers. The free Litterless website offers a state-by-state guide for zero-waste grocery shopping to find spots that sell in bulk or are Bring Your Own Containers (BYOC)-friendly.
Support sustainable businesses and products
Being careful about where you shop and spend your money is a top-level way to support and promote sustainable practices in business. Check out websites like Project Wren, which lets you search for companies that purchase carbon offsets, meaning they pay into climate change projects and funds to balance out the greenhouse gases they generate and emit. It’s hard to find companies that don’t generate any emissions, although that would be ideal. These companies aren’t eliminating emissions directly, but they are giving money to organizations and efforts to cut back on greenhouse gases.
Project Wren does have a carbon footprint calculator to see how much you’re wasting and should contribute to offsets personally, but these calculations are mostly a ruse to shift emissions blame onto individuals instead of large corporations. Stick to Project Wren’s free business search feature to find companies that are funding reforestation projects, rainforest protection, clean cooking fuel for refugees, or other waste-reducing efforts.
Another website, Climate Neutral, lets you search, free of charge, for companies that the nonprofit certifies as carbon neutral. That doesn’t mean the company doesn’t emit anything, but instead that it takes part in offset programs and other waste reduction efforts.
For example, take Ridgeline Outdoors, an outdoor gear retailer. Climate Neutral analyzes its emissions, and then sees how much it offsets, usually through carbon credits. Ridgeline spent $125,500 to offset a year of emissions based on different costs for those credits. The company also submits an annual action plan on how it’ll cut back on emissions from deliveries or employee commutes to setting out even bigger commitments, like changing to less wasteful manufacturers. Only then does it get a neutral label each year.
To really make sure you are a responsible shopper, the free HowGood app rates products from a box of lentils to a can of tuna on how sustainable the farming and growing, production and shipping, and overall company practices are for that brand or product. You scan the product’s barcode or search the HowGood database to find out if it’s been rated. (Rankings are “good, great, or best” — or no positive feedback.) You’ll see how well that tuna can comes in for its growing, processing, and corporate guidelines and practices.
Another scanner app from the Environmental Working Group is the free Healthy Living app, which lets you scan or search food or cosmetic products to see how clean the company is, from the ingredients it uses in its products to how they’re produced. Similar to HowGood, Healthy Living gives a green-to-red rating on ingredients, nutrition, and processing concern. Overall, you want a lower, “greener” score out of 10.
These may all seem like small steps, but every conscious choice helps your personal green journey. If you only start tracking your meat intake or shopping at bulk stores because of an app download, your life is becoming a shade greener. And from that, you can do even more (like vote).