Guide: How To Be More Sustainable in Suburbia

Plant spouts in a garden
  • The suburbs are responsible for half of America's carbon emissions, according to recent research.
  • This is mainly due to car culture, but there are many other factors such as suburban homes conserving less energy, reports EcoWatch.
  • This article outlines ways to reduce environmental impact at home, including the use of lawn alternatives and planting wildflower meadows.

When trying to be environmentally sustainable, living in suburbia can make it pretty difficult.

The suburbs have been responsible for 50% of carbon emissions in the United States, mainly due to a reliance on automobiles. Suburban homes also conserve far less energy due to the heating and cooling of larger houses, which also contributes to emissions.

Then there’s the American lawn. Using 3 trillion gallons of water a year across 40 million acres across the U.S., lawns are one of the nation’s largest sources of pollution due to chemical runoff from pesticides and fertilizers into waterways, as well as the 200 million gallons of gas annually to mow.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), gas-powered mowers contribute 5% of the total U.S. air pollution, and right now about 50% of surveyed waterways are too polluted to swim, fish or drink from with one of the major contributors being suburban lawns.

While the statistics can be daunting, if you’re wanting to live a more sustainable suburban life, there are many ways to make an impact locally that starts with you at home.

Here are some ideas:

Eco-friendly yard alternatives

There are several eco-friendly lawn alternatives being adopted that require far less effort to maintain, as well as save natural resources, money and the health of the ecosystem.

Wildflower meadows

Wildflower meadows fill the yards of suburban houses in Chino Hills, California
Wildflower meadows fill the yards of suburban houses in Chino Hills, California. Image: Ecowatch/Rob Castro

Wildflower meadows not only produce lush, aesthetic results, but provide biodiversity for pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds, who are critical to our ecosystem.

Though they are a little labor intensive at first, you only have to mow once a year. Many varieties of plants repel mosquitos, help soil absorb more water so little to no watering is required — particularly as roots grow longer and stronger — and no fertilizer is necessary. They can also grow in poor soil conditions.

The key is to choose species that are native to where you live, so over time they will best adapt to the site and thrive. Make observations of the area’s habitats, such as wet, shady or open areas and determine which might be best where.

Also, make sure the plants you’re choosing aren’t on your state’s noxious weed list.

Native plants

A house in a suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada with drought-tolerant landscaping, including less water-demanding native plants and shrubs
A house in a suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada with drought-tolerant landscaping, including less water-demanding native plants and shrubs Image: Ecowatch/Christopher Morris

Native plants are trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses which occur naturally to a particular region and are healthier and stronger because of it. Having evolved over thousands of years, they grow in harmony with the water supply, the environment and the soil, can sustain themselves through various weather, and grow roots sometimes 15 feet deep, which increases the soil’s ability to hold water.

Native plants have similar ecological benefits to wildflower meadows, with less need for water, pesticides or mowing.

To find what plants suit your location, the National Wildlife Federation has this native plant finder to plug in information and find options.

Ground covers

These are low-growing plants that fill in your lawn and require no mowing and little to no fertilizer or water. Once again, finding the right selection that isn’t invasive, and is native to your region and climate zone, will give you the best outcome. Many also attract pollinators.

Some examples of groundcovers are creeping thyme, corsican mint, clovers and blue star creepers. Those are just a handful of options that suit different regions.

While it can take time to grow, it can be used as a full lawn replacement.

Rain Gardens

A small residential rain garden
A small residential rain garden. Image: Ecowatch/City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services

A little more expensive and labor intensive are rain gardens which are built on a downhill slope and filled with plants, and native grasses that collect stormwater runoff from roofs, driveways and streets, and is a way to protect the aquatic ecosystem that also creates a wildlife habitat.

As rainwater gradually soaks into the ground soil nourishes the garden, while the plants then filter pollutants, which protects groundwater and other waterways.

The setbacks are it requires some upkeep and gets clogged if the surrounding landscape isn’t maintained. Since they also take 24 hours to drain, they also can attract mosquitos.

A large suburban rain garden. Image: Ecowatch/Seattle Public Utilities


Replacing lawns with sustainable edible landscapes not only creates an ecosystem for wildlife, but helps out in terms of food security.

Many people have been placing these not just in their backyards but front yards, too.

The design of edible plants and ornamentals can provide a functional and aesthetically pleasing landscape with a little planning.

Those who started the Grow Food Not Lawns movement back in the 1990s, recommend starting slow with fruit trees and expanding from there. It also advocates collaborating with neighbors to grow and share different foods.

A backyard vegetable garden in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
A backyard vegetable garden in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Image: Ecowatch/Steve Waters

Harvest rainwater

Another way to be more sustainable is building catchment systems that collect, divert and store rainwater that runs off surfaces for a variety of uses including free landscape irrigation, toilet flushing and other uses.

Harvesting rainwater also has a slew of benefits: It reduces energy use and carbon emissions used by water treatment industries who treat and transfer water. It also reduces runoff that can cause ground contamination from pesticides and other chemicals.

Collecting rainwater for use in the garden replenishes groundwater supplies and creates healthy plants and soil with its balanced pH levels, while also reducing the need to overdraw groundwater resources.

In the suburbs, rainwater collects in gutters and can be collected with downspouts that extend directly into the ground for irrigation or into a storage vessel for later use.

A barrel for collecting rainwater
A barrel for collecting rainwater. Image: Ecowatch/Annie Otzen

Energy conservation

Using too much energy not only increases utility bills, but strains the power grid. The power grid isn’t where the electricity is stored, but it conveys where there is the demand. Power plants then work to meet that demand.

When demand exceeds what can be produced, that can lead to blackouts and brownouts.

More importantly, power plants are also powered by natural gas, which is considered a fossil fuel, and produces large quantities of carbon dioxide when burned for usage.

In 2022, this accounted for 31% of total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. According to the EPA, however, as much as 17 percent of that comes from private homes in the form of electricity usage, heating and waste.

Conserving energy will not just save money in utility bills, but lower carbon emissions. Easy ways you can conserve energy are:

  • Turning things off when you’re not using them.
  • Buy more energy efficient light bulbs, like LEDs which use 85% less energy than regular light bulbs. Don’t wash clothes or run the dishwasher unless you have full loads.
  • Measure your electricity with a Kill A Watt Meter (which can be found for around $30 at home improvement stores) which gauges how much energy even appliances that are turned off use when still plugged in.
  • Install insulation and storm windows, and seal up cracks to keep hot or cool air from escaping.
  • When shopping for new appliances look for the Energy Star label, which uses 10-40% less energy than other appliances.
  • Choose renewable energy if you can, through solar, wind, low-impact hydroelectric or geothermal energy options. Also see if there might be a community solar project that allows homeowners to buy into a collectively owned energy project.
Solar housing development in America
Solar housing development in America. Image: Unsplash/blakesox

Zero Waste challenge

Back in 2013, author Bea Johnson published her popular Zero Waste Home guide to simplifying life by reducing waste. She went from the three Rs (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) and expanded it to five (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot).

  • Refusing means assessing what you already have in your control to dismiss, like using single use plastics, disposable cups, utensils and straws.
  • Reducing asks you to take a look at your consumption by assessing the true use and need for everything in the home and to let go of what isn’t necessary by paring down, which might help inform better shopping habits.
  • Reusing a product several times to its maximum usage helps to save resources, eliminate wasteful consumption, and extend the life of products. This includes shopping with reusables to reduce consumer packaging and bags and buying refillable products for the home. It also includes buying used products, and buying smart, which involves looking for products that are refillable, rechargeable and repairable. Check out Blueland for reusable cleaning supplies and Net Zero Company for a variety of other reusable products.
  • Recycling and making sure that you know what can and cannot be recycled, considering local materials recovery facilities, finding collection sites for hard to recycle items, like clothes and shoes, batteries and computers.
  • Rot means to compost the rest. Composting converts organic waste into a nutrient-rich fertilizer or mulch through natural decomposition, which can be used for your garden or houseplants, while keeping this type of waste out of the landfills where it emits methane as it rots.

Methane is one of the leading contributors to global warming, and over 17% of U.S. emissions come from landfills.

If you don’t want to do your own composting, see if your location offers a curbside pickup service that will transport the waste, otherwise you can compost at home in a variety of ways.

A handful of home compost
A handful of home compost. Image: Ecowatch/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Some of the options include: composting tumblers that are sealed from critters. To work, all that has to be done is add organic waste and brown matter like leaves or cardboard to be tumbled and rotated periodically.

There are also standing containers where finished compost can be accessed by a side door.

Another, more costly option is indoor composters, like the Lomi, where you can make compost in as little as five hours. Other indoor composters can be seen here.

The EPA advises against trying to compost these items at home: meat, fish, bones, cheese and other dairy products, pet waste and cat litter.

While it can be difficult to go entirely to zero waste, particularly with kids, starting off with small steps to reduce your consumption is still impactful.

Eat local and seasonal

Besides growing your own food, eating organic, local and seasonal foods not only supports the local economy, it helps preserve farms, which leads to increased food security. It also helps the environment by not having as big a carbon footprint from food that’s being shipped long distance.

To eat more locally, track down restaurants that serve local food, look for local foods in the supermarket, shop at a co-op, farmers market or natural food store that has locally grown food and see if you can join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project, to pay for locally grown vegetables, meats and flowers from local farmers you pay directly.

The website Local Harvest has this search engine to locate CSAs in your area.

Food preservation

A variety of vegetables and fruits preserved in glass jars
A variety of vegetables and fruits preserved in glass jars. Image: Ecowatch/Katherine Frey

Preserving seasonal foods you grow yourself or buy from markets during other seasons can reduce food waste and reduce your carbon footprint.

Food preservation involves canning, drying or freezing foods that can be used for later.

Other benefits of preserving your own food, besides saving money, include having control over what you’re eating and what’s in it and enabling more food self-reliance.

With canning and drying, finished goods don’t need to be refrigerated and can be stored in the pantry or the basement.

There are specific methods for preserving certain foods to keep them safe to eat, but nutritious fresh summer produce can be turned into jams, applesauce, pickles and other food items.

This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum

Article Details

September 21, 2023 3:57 PM
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