Is There Such a Thing as Eco-Etiquette?

Posted on May 18, 2009 by Courtney

For Mother’s Day last weekend, I bought my mom a reusable Nalgene bottle. I told her I thought she could use it to take water to work with her, instead of drinking plastic bottled water. She seemed to like it, so I pushed it one step further and said my next goal was to get her and my dad to stop using paper plates at home. To that, she just gave an exasperated sigh.

I think we can all agree that when you feel strongly about something, it’s hard not to encourage others to see things the way you do. This is true of religion, politics, and many other things that spark impassioned debate. For me, it’s hard not to call out the people I’m close to when I see them doing something blatantly non-green. (I’m too non-confrontational to strike up similar conversations with complete strangers, but sometimes I want to.) For example, my parents use paper plates all the time, and it drives me crazy. What’s a tree-hugging daughter to do?

It’s the same with some of my friends. I bite my tongue when I see them using disposable plastic forks at lunch, or throw something in the trash that could easily be recycled. Which brings me to my question for you, wise readers: What is the right way to inform someone of the environmental errors of their ways? Obviously, we should not yell at people or belittle them; that would just harm your relationship and probably not result in the person changing their habits. But is there a way to encourage someone to live greener without sounding like a know-it-all or a loony hippie?

Obviously, none of us can have zero impact on the environment (unless you’re this guy), so those of us who care about the planet choose different ways to lessen our footprint. We do what we can, but none of us are perfect. That said, sometimes all it takes is a word of encouragement to get someone to realize they could be doing more.

What do you do when someone close to you is not living green? Do you confront them? If so, what’s the best way to do it?


  1. I’ve got to say that I think Mother’s Day was probably not the time to address the paper plate issue.

    I think by example is always the best way. Maybe next time you visit, you could ask if you can use real plates while you’re there and show her how easy it is to just put those plates straight into the dishwasher when finished.

    I bought a plastic scrubby brush at the grocery store that could help her, too. It has a long handle so you don’t even have to get your hands wet to get food scraps off the plate. Plus, I throw it into the dishwasher, too, so it stays clean.

    May 18th, 2009 at 8:30 am
    Comment by Julie
  2. When I think about people who have had the most influence on my own behavior, it’s those who have quietly and positively set an example. Many people think that changing their ways will simply be “too hard”. But when you start seeing others doing things differently (e.g. bringing your own plate & utensils to food events or bicycling in most weather), you start to think it’s possible.

    May 18th, 2009 at 9:39 am
    Comment by LHT Rider
  3. There is a time and a place for everything. If I see something like a plastic bottle bottle being thrown away, I comment by asking if they have recycling services…I have found that not all communities have recycling programs.
    I also use it as a conversation starter. Most people know me and what I do and try to put their best foot forward…Especially when there are kids around.
    It still amazes me to see how many people would prefer not to be inconvenienced by recycling or environmental conservation.

    May 18th, 2009 at 11:14 am
    Comment by Robert
  4. I think the best way to lead is by example. You can’t make people do it and often when you speak up you simply make people more likely to not do it.

    May 18th, 2009 at 11:19 am
    Comment by Chiot's Run
  5. I found that alot people don’t really care how their actions are impacting the environment. They go through life thinking trash just disappears and that it doesn’t matter what they do.

    If I’m at my sister’s house, and she’s using paper plates, I could ask her if I can take them home to compost, but that’s alot of trouble for me. I’ll just get myself a regular plate and not bring up the subject. When she’s at my house, there are no paper plates or paper napkins, or plastic, either, for that matter. Maybe she’ll notice or maybe she won’t. It’s up to her to decide how she wants to impact the planet. I can’t change anyone. My family knows I feel strongly about the environment. Some of them just shake their heads like I’m crazy, and others have started changing how they look at plastic and trash and make smarter choices.

    May 18th, 2009 at 11:59 am
    Comment by Kim
  6. I think it’s easier (some times) to confront those you’re closer to. For example, my immediately family expects me to talk about eco-friendly products, recycling, etc because I have for so many years that it’s become part of our conversation, naturally. They even ask me questions now.

    Not so much with the husband’s family. I cringe every time we’re together because no one in that family believes in anything but paper plates. There have been times when I’m the one person sitting at a table of 13 with a real plate while others use paper and I’m the only one standing at the sink washing it after dinner. I don’t do this all the time, but some times I just can’t take it anymore after 3 or 4 days of papers plates for every mean for a large family.

    I agree with the comment above: Lead by example. I do my best to buy and use what I think is the most earth-friendly and many times, my families notice. They might not change their own actions right away but they do ask questions once in a while and all I can do is be honest and true to myself; otherwise, I’d be dumping a lot of paper/plastic plates into the trash on family get-togethers.

    May 18th, 2009 at 2:37 pm
    Comment by Rachel
  7. I did the same thing you did with the ex by buying him a Sigg bottle and Britta pitcher because he went through two and three bottles of water a day. It’s hard sometimes to convince someone to change their ways, but I’ve found with my parents that lead by example often works if I take the time to explain myself politely.

    There certainly should be something like eco-etiquette. I think people who don’t do green get turned off by the holier-than-thou attitudes many greenies adopt. Of course that’s not a problem here!

    May 18th, 2009 at 3:00 pm
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  8. I totally understand!! I think the best thing to do is to be sure and just walk the walk. People will almost always end up asking about the things you are doing. Honestly I make a point to do the most out there eco things around non-green people because it always gets questions.

    My parents are pretty green but my in-laws are another story. I’m always trying to get them to change by telling horror stores about BPA and HFCS but it doesn’t matter much. Some people just aren’t going to care as much as we want them to.

    May 19th, 2009 at 10:11 am
    Comment by Lisa
  9. I’ll chime in with another lead by example comment. And you refusing to use paper plates while you are at their house seems completely reasonable, as long as you are willing to help wash that dish or make sure it gets to the dishwasher.

    On the ‘my next goal’ bit, people don’t like to be manipulated. It sounds to me like that line came across as “Good you took the eco-bait by accepting my water bottle gift. Now I’m really going to lay it on thick and show you how wrong you are about the paper plates!” I exaggerate to make a point, of course.

    Find a way for your parents to save money/save time/get praise/be in the know/be cool/be part of a group by using reusable plates instead of paper plates and your problem will be solved.

    This is a question I have chewed on a lot. It’s a tough one.

    May 19th, 2009 at 10:39 pm
    Comment by Laura
  10. I think it works best to make eco-consciousness the fun, attractive option. Bring beauty and graciousness into your life with your lunch packed in an old-fashioned picnic basket and real silverware. Or have an uber-cool bento box to pack your greens (heehee) in, with cool homemade sun tea in your Sigg. Or a Joe Cool lunchbucket from the 40′s. Whatever your vibe.

    People will ask where you got it, how much, how does it work, etc., and there you go. A conversation that everyone is happy with, and no finger-wagging.

    May 20th, 2009 at 5:38 pm
    Comment by Sharon H. in IL
  11. I think leading by example is the most polite way to go. Sometimes people don’t know that the greener option can be a simple switch other times they can’t make a particular switch due to life circumstances, say apartment dwellers who don’t have yard probably can’t compost. Or maybe someone is conciously doing something non-eco for other reasons I don’t know about and that frankly are none of my buisness. If I don’t want someone pointing out my green shortcomings (because few of us are 100% complient) I don’t think that I should do that in others. Pointing out others nongreen practises reminds me of the religous people that always knock on my door and assume that I haven’t seen “the light” because I don’t attend services in their building and refuse to take a polite no thank you for answer. (BTW I’m not against being relgious, it’s just that these folks are extremely insistent and refuse to believe that our family goes to the same house of worship that his family has attended for 200 years.)

    Maybe the next time you’re at your parents you can offer to take the paper plates some for composting. It might be a bit of a pain, but it shows an easy option and a great way to get free fertilizer for gardening!

    May 26th, 2009 at 2:39 pm
    Comment by Condo Blues
  12. The problem is that they already know that what they’re doing isn’t green and they probably already know what you think about it. Saying the obvious is pointless and will probably just annoy them.

    I think the only way to have any positive effect is to speak in general terms. I’ll say, conversationally, “I just read an interesting article…” Or, “I really hate it that I have to breathe disgusting sulfurous air because people have to have their white paper.” (I live near a pulp mill so I can say this.) Or, “I can’t believe that they’re making these products with plastic because it’s known to have adverse health effects.” Etc. It gets people thinking without making it personal.

    August 22nd, 2009 at 2:06 pm
    Comment by Linda
  13. I’ve been trying to convince my mom to get some reusable grocery bags, she makes excuses for why she needs the plastic ones (they make good packing material, good for cleaning cat boxes, etc.). I’ve been thinking of just buying her two sets of really nice ones for a gift, she was worried she’d forget to put them back in her car, this way she’d have a spare.

    November 2nd, 2009 at 11:50 am
    Comment by April

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