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North Hills Monthly

Sustainable hAPPiness: Apps to Help You Go Eco-friendly

Apr 02, 2017 12:04PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

I grew up in a suburb of Seattle, wore Birkenstocks throughout high school, and fully embraced my tree-hugging, granola-loving culture. I have bragged on multiple occasions that we had curbside recycling back in the 1980s. I try to buy organic produce and have been known to carry an aluminum can around for hours, holding out for a recycling bin rather than a trash can.

I have also driven my gas-guzzling minivan from one parking spot to another in the Aldi/Giant Eagle shopping center to avoid having to walk across the large parking lot with a preschooler in tow. My family receives power usage updates a couple of times a year that attempt to shame us with the knowledge of how much more electricity we use than our neighbors. We celebrated the last time we got an update telling us we had achieved “average” power usage in comparison to neighborhood residents.

All this is to say that my current eco-friendly status is floating somewhere between good intentions and supreme guilt.

If you, too, have some ambivalence about your carbon footprint and whether you are doing enough to help the environment, consider trying one of these apps. They might help kick-start a new effort to go green—just in time for Earth Day on April 22.

Oroeco is a fun and innovative app and website that asks lifestyle questions and then calculates each user’s environmental impact. The app creates a profile so users understand where their biggest impact is and makes recommendations for how to improve. The suggestions are concrete and include things like weatherizing your home, eating vegetarian meals and installing low-flow shower heads. Each suggestion is quantified in dollars saved per year, a nice motivator for users when helping the environment isn’t enough to inspire a change in behavior. Free for iPhone and Android.

GoodGuide is both an app and a website. It allows users to search for “healthier” products—whether health is defined by nutritional value or chemical safety. The app has a handy bar code scanner, but also provides easy ways to browse products by category or by name. Its database includes personal care items like shampoo, make-up and hand lotion; household cleaners such as laundry detergent; and packaged food and beverages. The rating system is simple to understand; a green circle with a 10 is the highest possible score, while a red circle with a zero is the lowest. One tap will open up detailed information about which chemical ingredients or food additives are cause for concern. If an item scores poorly, the app will suggest healthier alternatives—a boon if you’re standing in front of 45 kinds of shampoo in the hair care aisle at Target. Free for iPhone and Android.

The EcoSpeed app helps users save money and get efficient mileage from their vehicles. Drivers can find the most fuel-efficient—though not necessarily the shortest—route to their destinations. The app attempts to avoid routes with stop-and-go traffic. Beyond offering efficient routes, developers claim that users save up to 40 percent on gas by following the app’s suggestions for optimized driving speeds. For example, through a series of beeps, the app will coach drivers to drive at a consistent pace between stoplights rather than speeding up, zooming to the next stop, and hitting the brakes. Reviewers love the concept but some criticize the beeps as being annoying and unhelpful. Taking a few minutes to become familiar with how the app works before a trip eliminates confusion about what all the beeping means, and the fuel-saving costs might be worth the extra effort. Free on Android; $.99 for iPhone app.

PaperKarma aims to rid the world of junk mail. Users take a quick photo of mail they wish to stop, which prompts a contact to the mailer and removes users from that organization’s distribution list. The app is most effective with things like magazines, credit card offers, catalogs and yellow pages that are directly addressed to an individual (rather than “current resident”). Reviewers appreciate PaperKarma’s ease of use and that it delivers on the promise to reduce unwanted mail. They dislike that not all features are free, although folks who opt in to a paid subscription say that the monthly $2 fee is worth it. Free on both Android and iPhone; in-app purchases. 

Seafood Watch by Monterey Bay Aquarium is both a website and a popular app that gives up-to-date seafood recommendations so users know whether the fish they want to purchase at a store or in a restaurant is sustainable. Consumers can search for nearby restaurants or stores that serve ocean-friendly seafood. The app provides clear information by creating lists of best choices, good alternatives, and fish to avoid, allowing users to make informed decisions about the fish they select. Free for iPhone and Android.

While apps cannot save the world, they can provide helpful tools for smartphone users to consider their environmental impact and adjust their behavior accordingly. Those users can indeed change the world.