How Do I Make My Parents Live More Sustainably?

food stored in jars reduces food waste because you can see what you have on hand

I’m a teenager living at home with unsupportive parents. What can I do to make them stop using so much plastic and be more sustainable?

I hear this question constantly. First of all, realize that you can’t make others behave the way that you want them to. And because your parents make the buying decisions, you have little control over what comes into your home. You can control your own behavior only.

But you can still try to persuade your parents to make different choices by deploying this tenet of sales 101: Sell people things they don’t want by telling them how they benefit. Explain how the kinds of changes you’d like to implement will improve your parents’ lives.

Like addressing climate change itself, dealing with overwhelmed, apathetic or climate change-denying parents requires a multi-prong approach. Pick and choose from the following strategies, according to which ones make sense for you.

Vegetables prepped and ready to roast

1. Make your parents’ lives easier: Do some chores

Cook dinner

Take it from a mother of two, parents love it when you cook them dinner. If you’ve tried and failed to convince your parents to stop eating beef at every meal, show don’t tell—cook them a delicious vegetarian or vegan dish. They’ll be so thrilled that you cooked that they will eat whatever you put in front of them. Food other people cook for you always tastes best, so you’ll have that going for you too.

If your parents like Indian or Mexican food, you can cook all sorts of delicious and simple dishes with ingredients that you should be able to find pretty easily without plastic packaging—lentils or beans and vegetables. Simple dishes such as dal, refried beans and black beans all go well with rice, another common bulk item. Found excess vegetables in the refrigerator? Roast them for an easy, delicious side dish. Or make soup.

Offer to shop for this meal (and for others)

If you have a bit of cash, consider buying a few reusable cloth produce bags or make some if you sew. Your grocery store may carry these bags. You can also find lots of them through online stores and Etsy. Buy your ingredients with your produce bags, reusable shopping bags (I’ll assume your parents have those) and any jars you’ve hoarded for low-waste shopping.

Clean the bathroom with vinegar and baking soda

Do your parents love toilet pucks and foam cleaners? Clean the bathroom for them using less harsh ingredients. Pour ¼ cup or so of vinegar into the toilet. Let it sit five minutes, swish a toilet brush around in the toilet and flush.

To clean the sink and shower, make a paste of vinegar and baking soda on a sponge or rag and scrub away dirt and grime. I am able to buy baking soda in bulk and I make my own vinegar out of either apple scraps or kombucha that I’ve purposely brewed to the very vinegary stage.

Do the laundry and hang it up to dry

Hopefully you have somewhere to hang it. But how is this zero-waste? you may ask. Hanging your laundry to dry consumes fewer resources and makes clothing last longer. Any tactic that delays or prevents a tangible item’s demise in landfill fits in with the zero-waste regimen in my book.

2. Grow some vegetables

Homegrown vegetables are zero-waste, local and delicious. If you have a patch of soil outside, consider growing a couple of tomato plants, some potatoes or a few herbs. I have no data to back me up but I would gamble that herbs go to waste more than many other types of produce. You have to buy the entire bunch even if you need just a couple of tablespoons of parsley. Grow some and snip off what you need.

If you don’t have a patch of soil and would like to grow something, you could sprout some beans, grains or seeds.

Green onions regrowing from hairy ends

3. Show them how much money you’ve saved them

As you shop for the ingredients for your low-waste dinner, track what you spend. If you cook a meal out of simple bulk ingredients and fresh vegetables, you may spend less than what your parents usually spend on dinner (depending on what your family usually eats for dinner). While you’re at the store, note the price of cleaning supplies and compare those to the (likely lower) prices of vinegar and baking soda. By hanging clothes to dry, you save about 45 cents per load. Weigh your tomatoes as they ripen and track how many pounds you grew for your seed investment of $2.99.

Give your parents a list of all the money you’ve saved. They’ll love it.

Convince them to switch to reusable items, such as unpaper towels, safety razors, menstrual cups and cloth pads by, again, doing the math. Calculate how soon these items will pay for themselves. If you sew, you can make unpaper towels and cloth pads that cost virtually nothing.

4. Don’t ask your parents to buy piles of fancy zero-waste gear

You won’t get your parents on board if you demand a long wish list of zero-waste equipment that costs hundreds of dollars. All of the matching jars and unbleached GOTS cotton bags and gleaming containers look beautiful but try to use what you have on hand before you buy anything new. Go here for a zero-waste kit that costs zero dollars.

Many “green” products simply enable us to continue to live unsustainable lifestyles while not addressing the root of our waste problem—consumerism. We must consume less stuff, not simply consume different stuff.

5. Plan ahead

If you and your family go out to dinner, go prepared. Take a couple of jars (or more if you think you’ll need them) for leftovers. You’ll save the food while rejecting the throwaway containers the restaurant provides. If you go on a road trip, pack some low-waste snacks. If everyone in your family has reusable water bottles, fill them up.

6. Watch a documentary

Make a batch of stovetop popcorn to draw your parents into the living room where you just happen to have a documentary playing, such as Blue Planet II, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, Bag It, or The Story of Stuff.

7. Manage your expectations

Ah, parents. If only they would listen to reason! You may not get your parents on board for all of the changes you’d like your household to make but even if you can convince them to make one change, such as drinking tap water rather than bottled, you’ve made progress. After they adjust to that change and experience the benefits, you can sell them more easily on other changes.

As for my expectations, I don’t expect you to try every tactic I have included here, but if you do do all of the chores I have listed above, I would like to adopt you.

The zero-waste therapist is in

Do you have a zero-waste dilemma you need help with? Please send us your dilemma here. I might answer it in a future blog post.

Learn more about my book here!

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16 Replies to “How Do I Make My Parents Live More Sustainably?”

  1. What a brilliant post Anne-Marie 🙂 I have been discouraged by a family member lately. I started the new year with ideas such as, how about this year is the year we adopt the family cloth? How about we walk to do our weekend errands instead of taking the car? How about we don’t buy anything this year? How about we try to solve our problems without throwing money at them? You get the picture. My enthusiasm was not well-received, even thought cost savings and health benefits are obvious. Maybe it’s because I wake up early in the morning with these brain waves…. So I choose stealth mode. I just go ahead and do stuff anyway, and as you suggest here, then show the savings and benefits. It works!


    1. Hi Madeleine,
      Given the opportunity to shoot down an idea, so many people will simply shoot it down. I’m glad to hear that showing the savings and benefits has been working for you! Thank you for offering your experience to back me up on this 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

  2. An amazing post, well done. You are so firm but fair in your actions; I hope you get your own TV show and convert the nation! 🙂

    1. Thank you! That’s very sweet of you 😀
      ~ Anne Marie

  3. Susan Harkema says: Reply

    Another whiz-bang of a post! And, full of real-world, use tomorrow advice for this teenager or for anyone trying to change the tide of opinion in a family.

    1. Thank you Susan! I’m glad you found the post helpful 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

  4. practical tips for adults too, not just the 16 year old…love it.

    1. Thank you! All ages are welcome (and needed!).

  5. Love your final comment!!

    1. Thank you Catherine 😀
      ~ Anne Marie

  6. Totally agree with other comments — this is a terrific post. And sweet and good to think of this young person doing all they can. One addition to Cook Dinner — CLEAN UP super well, too — your parents will love that as well.

    1. Great point Happy Mum! Yes, please clean up after cooking!
      ~ Anne Marie

  7. Not just parent who have a different view – my partner and I differ in the actions we’re willing to take in response to our climate emergency. It was a liberating moment for me when I realised we don’t have to reach consensus on every little thing. Now I do stuff my way and he does it his way. Interestingly he’s increasingly respectful of my choices, and gradually joining me in them.
    I guess the moral of this for me is that the only person whose choices I’m truly responsible for are my own.

  8. I love this. As someone who has always lived with flatmates or family, I have often put off taking measures to reduce my plastic waste, or change the way I eat. I ended up coming to the conclusion a) not to blame myself for the priorities other people set and the decisions they make, and b) to take responsibility where I can, when I cook the meals or buy the food.

  9. Make the text on the site larger so those parents can read it!

  10. This is GOLD. Especially the last paragraph 😂
    So very very true! This is exactly the right way about it -doing, not just telling. And showing the benefits! Love this 💕

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