Every day you make decisions that impact the climate. Sometimes, the right thing to do is not always the most obvious – sustainability can be more counterintuitive than you may think. We’re listing out some of the common misconceptions and what to do about them.

1. Yes, really – use the dishwasher!

Dishwashers have become a lot more efficient over the years, and can be more efficient than washing dishes by hand. In fact, dishwashers may use only 16,300 gallons of water over a 10-year period, while hand-washing uses around 34,200 gallons of water.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but dishwashers actually use water much more efficiently than handwashing. In fact, the average, full-size dishwasher only uses about 5 gallons of water, or less, each cycle.

If you do not own a dishwasher, then the most energy and water efficient way to wash your dishes is to turn off your faucet instead of letting it run for the duration of the dish washing. Instead, try filling up one of the dishes, a pot for example, with warm soapy water to wash the other dishes with, and use cold water to rinse.

The bottom line: Use your dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand. Wait to run the dishwasher until it’s full, but make sure to not overfill it. This will ensure that every dish is getting clean while optimizing the dishwasher space.

2. Yes, really – set the washing machine to cold!

Speaking of washing items, there is another common myth that only hot water can do the trick to cleaning your clothes. This is not the case.

In fact, 90% of the energy that is used when washing our clothing goes to heating up the water. Not to mention that hot water can fade and/or shrink clothes as well. The main reason to wash clothing in hot water is to sanitize any garments to kill any bacteria or germs.

If you want to go the extra mile in reducing energy and saving money around laundry – try air drying your clothing instead of tossing it into the dryer. Drying clothes contributes about 5.8% in residential CO2 emissions in the U.S.

This will also expand the life cycle of your clothing, which is most likely already shortened due to the quality of fast fashion. So next time it’s laundry day, consider washing your clothes in cold water to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint!

The bottom line: Wash your clothing in cold water. This still cleans your clothing and saves energy and money. If you need to sanitize your garments or other fabrics, then hot water is the way to go.

A women doing laundry

3. Yes, really – switch to electric!

Electrifying vehicles, homes, other facilities, and appliances can be one of the best ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the world.

However, as green as going electric is, it actually is not as green as we may think. Today, over 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions around the world come from electricity production. Since our electricity is generated by fossil fuels instead of renewable sources, it makes sense that electricity production contributes quite a bit to the warming of the planet. Enter strategic electrification.

Strategic electrification is the process of switching appliances and other systems to use electricity, while also using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels to produce this electricity. This can help boost energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

The bottom line: Electrifying is a good start, but to really reduce your carbon footprint, electricity should be powered by renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.

If you live in Massachusetts, the Mass Save program offers generous rebates for upgrading to energy-efficient appliances and heating & cooling systems.

If you are thinking of upgrading to an electric vehicle, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance’s Drive Green program is an electric vehicle discount program, making electric vehicles more affordable than ever. Charging stations are also becoming widely available in more locations every day, including our reuse store, EcoBuilding Bargains. Charge up your car for free next time you decide to shop in person, with any of our four charging stations!

4. Yes, really – weatherization keeps you warm, but it also keeps you cool!

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, air conditioners consume about 6% of the electricity produced in the United States. Fans, on the other hand, use a lot less electricity than AC, but don’t cool the temperature of the air. So, what is the best way to keep cool while also keeping energy consumption down?

No matter how efficient your AC is, it won’t be able to do the job if warm air is coming into your home and cool air is being lost. If your home is not properly air sealed and insulated or lacks shade, indoor temperatures will stay high and conditioned air will leak out.

One of the most efficient air cooling (and heating) systems out there is a mini-split heat pump. A heat pump works by transferring energy instead of generating energy. They also do not use ducts, making the transportation of energy a lot more efficient. The upfront costs can be a bit more than central AC, but the savings from lower electrical use, combined with available rebates, make them a cost-effective option.

Using cooking appliances like the oven and stove can increase indoor temperatures. Avoid running these during the warmer months and the warmest hours of the day by microwaving, using an induction range, or having a good old-fashioned cookout!

In areas that don’t get too hot in the warmer months, a fan may be all you need to keep cool. Just be sure to only run them when you are in the room!

The bottom line: Proper air sealing and insulation are essential to keeping the warm air out and the cool air in. If you live in Massachusetts and are eligible, the Mass Save or the Home Energy Loss Prevention Services (HELPS) programs can provide no-cost home energy assessments. Through these home energy assessments, you may receive a discount on insulation for your home.

CET provides heat pump consultation services for HELPS customers. Call the HELPS hotline at 1-888-333-7525 to learn more. Eligible Massachusetts residents can also apply for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center Whole-Home Air-Source Heat Pump Pilot program.

Depending on where you live, a fan may suffice. To optimally cool a home with just a fan, try running a whole house fan at night to cool the home off. Then in the morning, close all of the windows and shades to keep the cool air in. Use the fan to circulate the cool air around during the day.

In warmer areas, sometimes only AC will do the trick. The less expensive, more efficient option may be to run a fan in conjunction with AC (and proper weatherization of course).

Person installing pink insulation in a home

5. Yes, really – insulation is more effective than replacing your windows!

As mentioned above, weatherization is important during both the heating and cooling seasons. A properly weatherized home has fewer air leaks and holds in conditioned air resulting in more cost and energy savings. But how important are windows in keeping the warmed/cooled air inside?

Windows are responsible for 25-30% of residential energy use from heat loss and heat gain. Double pane windows can also result in 18-24% of savings over single-pane windows. However, you don’t need to rush out and buy new, energy efficient windows to save energy and money. Instead, one of the most effective ways to keep the cold or heat out of your home is through weatherization.

Weatherization involves a variety of techniques to improve your home’s envelope to make it more efficient and protect it from external elements. This may include caulking and weather-stripping doors and windows, sealing air leaks with spray foam or adding attic or wall insulation. Weatherization can make your home more comfortable, save money, and improve indoor air quality. If you are in need of new windows, we have several energy efficient repurposed windows at our store, EcoBuilding Bargains!

The bottom line: Weatherize your home, including caulking and weather-stripping, instead of buying new windows. This can be a DIY project or done by a professional through one of the residential energy efficiency programs.

CET can help you with this! Sign up now for a no-cost Home Energy Assessment to learn more about how you can make your home more energy-efficient.

6. Yes, really – turn the heat off at night!

Heating a home accounts for about 45% of a home’s energy bill. Before programmable thermostats, most people were under the impression that a furnace would work harder and drive up costs to heat a space back up if the heat was turned off. The assumption that keeping the heat on in a home would be more energy efficient actually did not result in any cost savings and does not make the furnace work overtime. Turning the heat off at night and only having it on during the day is actually more energy efficient than keeping it on 24/7.

With programmable and Wi-Fi enabled smart thermostats, you are now able to regulate the temperature of your home with no loss of comfort. You can see a 10% energy savings by simply setting back the thermostat 7 to 10 degrees for 8 hours and still wake up in comfort with a preset schedule. Consider programing it to turn down the temperature at night or when you are out during the day to achieve these savings.

The bottom line: Use a programmable or smart thermostat to schedule heating and cooling for maximum comfort and savings.

7. Yes, really – not everything that seems recyclable belongs in the recycling!

We’ve all been there: there is an item in our hands and we are debating if we should recycle it or toss it into the trash. We want to do what is best for the environment, so we put it in the recycling bin and hope for the best. However, if this item does not in fact belong in the recycling bin, we may be guilty of “wishcycling.” This is typically done out of good intentions, but wishcycling leads to contamination of the recycling stream – and contamination rates for recycling are already around 25%.

If we put something into the recycling bin and it doesn’t belong there, it will most likely end up in the trash anyway. From the time that this item was placed into the recycling bin, it went to a Municipal Recovery Facility (MRF), and machines/workers had to sort the non-recyclables out of the recyclable materials. The non-recyclables end up going into the trash instead, where they should have been placed in the first place. Wishcycling takes up time and resources for an item to be disposed of properly and sometimes even results in an entire bag of recyclables needing to go in the trash.

Wishcycling can also lead to slower production, cause worker injuries, and jam recycling equipment. Plastic bags are one of the worst offenders, frequently getting tangled up in the machinery, slowing down the process and potentially damaging equipment, while workers have to stop the sorting of recyclables and untangle the bags.

The bottom line: Next time you’re about to recycle an item you’re not sure about, pause and think about whether it can actually be recycled, and when in doubt- throw it out. A good rule of thumb is if it’s clean paper, cardboard, or plastics that are jugs, tubs, and bottles, then it can be recycled.

Make sure your recycling is also clean, as leftover residues can contaminate the recycling as well. If you live in Massachusetts, you can search any item on the Recycle Smart MA webpage to see if it belongs in the recycling or the trash bin.

Even though plastic bags can’t be recycled through curbside recycling, you can still recycle them at some retailers. Find drop-off sites for plastic film recycling, or check in with a local retailer.

Worker sorting materials on a conveyor belt

8. Yes, really – in some instances, flying may be better than taking a train!

It’s no secret that flying contributes quite a bit to our carbon footprint. However, what mode of transportation is more environmentally friendly will vary depending on the distance, the type of seating, and the number of people traveling.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, two travelers flying over 1000 miles in economyopens PDF file is better than taking a train in the U.S. However, if you are traveling less than 1000 miles or flying first class, then the train will always win. So next time you want to fly across the U.S. make sure you’re traveling economy! Also, try to find a non-stop flight since the majority of an airplane’s fuel is used during takeoff and landing.

A cross-country train trip can be worse for the environment than flying as most trains in the U.S. still run on diesel. Trains in the Northeast Corridor are the only trains in the U.S. that run on electricity. These only emit about 0.37 pounds of CO2opens PDF file per passenger-mile, while diesel-fueled trains emit about 0.45 pounds of CO2opens PDF file per passenger-mile.

The bottom line: Trains can have a bigger carbon footprint than flying in the U.S., especially if you’re taking a cross-country trip. The best way to travel may be, in fact, by motor coach bus. Every person who travels this way can reduce their carbon footprint by around 85%. opens PDF file These tend to be the cheaper options in comparison to taking the train, even though they may increase travel time.

9. Yes, really – fixing instead of buying new is more sustainable!

Instead of buying new items when your older items need to be replaced, consider fixing what you already have. From both a financial and environmental standpoint, fixing things is the way to go. Many items have not been upgraded over the years to become more energy efficient (like your toaster or coffee pot), so replacing them won’t have an impact on your carbon footprint

However, some appliances like a dishwashers or laundry machines have become a lot more energy efficient over the years. Upgrading these appliances can help you save money and energy, but if your old one is still in working condition, it is best to get the full use out of it before upgrading.

Another example is making the switch from a gas-powered car to a new electric vehicle. If your gas-powered car is still in good condition, it’s better to keep driving this car until you are ready for an upgrade. When you are ready to upgrade, consider an electric vehicle! But for the time being, it’s better to use what you have and fix it as needed.

The bottom line: Fix what you already have. When it is time to upgrade, consider making the switch to something more energy efficient, but use what you have until then.

10. Yes, really – if single-use plastic bags could be reused infinitely they would be more sustainable than cotton totes!

Single-use plastic bags are seen as a big offender. But how bad for the environment are they in comparison to other shopping bags?

Reusable bags may be the most intuitive choice out of the three options. However, when taking into consideration the life cycle assessment of each one and the carbon footprint of the materials that each one is made out of, it can get a bit more complex. The life cycle assessment looks at the environmental impact of each stage of an item’s life cycle. This is typically the extraction, manufacturing, packaging and transportation, use, and end-of-life phases.

Here’s where it gets complex. Plastic bags actually have a lower carbon footprint in the beginning of their life cycle compared to paper or reusable shopping bags. This is not to say that they are the most sustainable, because when considering the entire life cycle, they do not win out. They might if they get used many times over, but they are typically used only once. They are not degradable and can stick around for many years, causing other issues related to microplastics and pollution.

On the other hand, paper bags tend to have a slightly larger carbon footprint in the beginning of their life cycle. And cotton tote bags are even worse. A paper bag would have to be used at least 3 timesopens PDF file , and a cotton tote would have to be used at least 131 timesopens PDF file to equal the CO2 output of a single use plastic bag. However, paper bags break down easily in comparison to plastic, and cotton totes are sturdy enough so they can be reused many times over. These options look at lot better at the end-of-life phase since they generate less waste. It really comes down to how many times an item can be reused and how much an individual actually reuses the item.

The bottom line: The most environmentally friendly bag may be a combination of these: reusing a reusable plastic shopping bag as many times as you can. These heavy plastic bags are more durable so they won’t rip and can be used over and over. Better yet, use the bag you already have at home or buy one secondhand! Reusing bags as many times as possible to reduce the environmental impact!

Overall, it can be tricky to navigate what are the most sustainable actions. Keep in mind the Four Rs: reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle! You can use and reuse what you already have, and repair things as needed. Use less hot water when possible, and if you are unsure if an item belongs in your recycling bin, check in with your waste/recycling service before you toss it in the trash. Don’t forget to weatherize your home to reduce energy costs and increase comfort!