Heroes

Get greener for summer by trying as many of these 17 challenges as you can.

Warning: Acting on these tips may be incredibly fun and result in a cleaner conscience.

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Green Mountain Energy

By now, even your grandma knows that solar panels can save you money and a bike ride to work is a greener option than a Hummer.

If you really want to help save the planet, then you’re probably hungry for new and creative tips you can actually do to make a real difference.

While many of us may not be ready to turn your home into a zero-waste household that only does laundry once a year, most of us are looking for some pretty awesome life-hacks to do good, all while reducing clutter, saving money, and pushing our families to get a bit more creative.


Sustainability feels more important now than it's ever been, so we're getting you these tips with no time to waste.

Image via iStock.

We spoke with Jeff Becerra of Stop Waste, an Oakland-based public agency that makes sustainability easier for residents and businesses and came up with 17 ways you can totally nail going green:

The first five are food-based because that's one of the largest contributors to waste in the U.S. — over 60 million tons of produce per year — and the rest ... well, you’ll see.

1. Organize your refrigerator to ensure perishables get eaten first.

And feel free to use freeze-dried foods for trail snacks, flavor powders, and more. They have a longer shelf-life. If you’ve got the funds to drop a few thousand dollars on a freeze-dryer yourself, go nuts. In the meantime, this option is becoming mainstream enough to be able to pick up at your local grocery store.

2. Freeze overripe fruits and vegetables, leftover meats, and discarded bones for simple, tasty, and nutritious snacks and staples.

Think smoothies, bone and veggie stocks, and frozen veggies as healthy additions to hot meals.

3. Buy fresh ingredients in smaller quantities more often.

Image via iStock.

This way, you waste less and enjoy fresher ingredients.

“A lot of people are shocked when they learn how much food ends up in landfills every year,” says Becerra. “It’s not just the landfills and how those can affect your soil and water. It’s also the methane that organic material releases into the air as it decomposes.”

4. Shop your fridge and cupboards first to avoid buying food you already have on hand.

Also, avoid marketing gimmicks that encourage you to buy more than you need. If you get 10 items for $10 and only eat five before they spoil, that’s $5 wasted.

Image via iStock.

5. Make A Smarter List

Plan ahead for meals, not just individual items you think you’ll need. For example, will you or your family members eat out this week? How many times? What do you need to make the remaining meals, and how much of it? Be realistic. If you’re up for taking the plunge, buy food package-free.

Image via iStock.

6. Take a stand with your takeout.

Some online services like Grubhub, Seamless, or restaurant websites will give you the option to skip the plastic utensils and paper plates, or they leave room for comments or special notes where you can make that request. Also, take note of any eateries that use sustainable packaging.

Green Mountain Energy also offers unique tips on their blog that are pretty innovative.

7. Win with weatherization.

On average, homes that are 10 years or older will have duct leakage of 27% or more. That means you’re likely paying to cool your attic. Sealing your ducts and insulating your home can cut your energy bills by up to 35%.

8. Get your floors green.

We don't mean paint them (although, feel free, it's your domicile). Next time you’re considering getting new floors, look for products that use plant-based adhesives and are free of urea-formaldehyde (visible on the ingredient list, takes some practice to say). Sustainable options include cork, bamboo, engineered wood, or other natural materials.

9. Round up binders, scissors, highlighters, crayons and pencils that work, but aren’t needed anymore.

Then, check in with area schools to see if the supplies could be used in the classrooms.

10. Know that your old pen could become art.

The Pen Guy collects ball point pens, dry erase markers, felt tip pens, mechanical pencils and more. Then, the writing instruments are repurposed into recycled pen art.

11. Minimize idling.

It's equally important to stay green outside of the house, too: when parked, turn off your car if you will be waiting more than 10 seconds, so you aren’t wasting fuel.

Image via iStock

12. Drive nicely.

Aggressive driving, such as speeding up and braking sharply, can burn more gas.

13. Beautify your home with rare, one-of-a-kind, repurposed, and “upcycled” decor.

Keep yourself (or your kids) occupied, teach your students an array of subjects with hands-on activities, or make it a date night: use found, salvaged, and recyclable materials, make something new and beautiful. Creative reuse doesn’t just help the environment, it engages our minds and can even help us connect and collaborate with others.

14. Don’t ditch that dress: donate it.

If you ever wonder, “Who could possibly use this?” the answer is almost always someone. Your old stuff is more valuable than you think. Clothing donations create free or low-cost options for families in need. Even our most tattered belongings can enjoy the glory of a second life as building and manufacturing materials, and more.

15. Set goals and make stepping up your recycling and composting a game.

Image via iStock.

Conscious Carnival has appeared throughout the United States at major music festivals and tours, universities and schools, local fairs and farmers markets, and professional sports events. Take a page out of Conscious Carnival’s book and turn sustainability into a challenge in your homes and workplaces. How quickly do you fill your trash can? Now consider some easy ways to fill it more slowly, and see immediate results.

16. Take a page from “Zero Waste Girl” Lauren Singer, who has filled a small cup with the amount of waste she produced in a year.

And it’s OK to just take one page. Instead of overhauling your entire life and spending it refilling mason jars and making your own soap, maybe start with her small hacks, like declining straws in your drinks and choosing email over paper receipts.

Image via iStock.

17. Track down your local drug-take-back program.  

From expired or irrelevant prescriptions to old bottles of the over-the-counter stuff, drugs in landfills can mean trouble for the environment. More cities and towns are instating this program at least once a year, so do some Googling!

Pretty painless, right? Taking on any of the above won’t just feel good, but may even be fun and keep your wallet fatter.

If you like a challenge, we dare you to check one of these items off the list for the next two weeks — but if you end up making one small lifestyle change or trying just one of these on for size this month, you’re still awesome in our eyes. Don’t forget to pass it on: After all, a digital footprint is carbon-free.

Green Mountain Energy is just one company that's been walking the eco-friendly walk for over 20 years...get familiar with them if you want to take a stroll down greener-living lane.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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