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For Families

Things You and Your Family Can
Do to Protect the Bay

Learn about Bay restoration and conservation projects for families and classrooms.

There are an endless number of ways that you and your family can help keep the Chesapeake Bay watershed (or whichever watershed you live in) free from toxins and pollutants. Many of these things can be done as family projects. Engaging in meaningful activities can be a great way for your young person to develop a strong sense of responsibility and pride.

Things you can do in your house

Things you can do in the yard

Things you can do on the road

Things you can do in the house

To conserve energy:

  • Unplug major appliances when you’re going on vacation. These things use electricity even when they’re not turned on. If you’re not going to be around for a while, that energy can be conserved.
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs. Ninety percent of the energy that standard incandescent bulbs demand is wasted as heat, while only ten percent is used as light.  Compact fluorescent light bulbs are a bit more expensive to buy, but use 75% less energy, last ten times longer, and produce the same amount of light. So they end up saving money in the long run. Those bulbs can be found in most hardware stores and even in some grocery stores.
  • Use fans instead of air conditioning whenever possible. Open windows to let in the natural breeze.
  • Turn off lights and all other electric devices and appliances when they’re not in use.
  • Seal drafts. Each year almost $13 billion worth of heated or cooled air escapes through drafts in residential buildings in the U.S. Caulk holes or drafts, and take air conditioning units out of the windows in the winter so no extra air can escape.
  • Install two panes of glass on the windows, instead of just one. Double-paned windows double the energy efficiency of the window and don’t let as much heat transfer between the inside of the house and the outside.
  • Change the settings on your thermostat. Set the thermostat a couple of degrees cooler in the winter and raise the setting a few degrees higher in the summer.
  • Shower using lower temperatures.
  • When feasible, hang wet clothes outside to dry instead of using electric dryers.
  • Use energy efficient appliances. If you’re reading the yellow energy efficiency rating sticker, the higher the number, the more energy efficient it is. This applies to all systems, except the U-rating system.

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To conserve and protect water:

  • Use low-phosphate or phosphate-free detergents. Phosphorous is a nutrient that causes algal blooms in the Bay, which is harmful to the plants and animals in the water. Many dishwashing detergents are up to 8.7% phosphorous, but some are as low as 1.6% or 0% phosphorous. This information can be found on the detergent box or bottle.
  • Limit your use of antibacterial soaps. Some researchers think that over-use of Triclosan, the leading agent in antibacterials, might create “super bacteria” that could harm fish and birds or that are resistant to antibacterials and antibiotics. Although the long-term effects of this are still being researched, there is no evidence that using antibacterial soap in the home decreases sickness and infection. Using plain soap and water or fast-drying chemicals such as bleach, ammonia, and hydrogen peroxide is an equally adequate and less risky disinfecting practice.
  • Read the labels of household chemicals to find out how to dispose of them properly. When possible, use up everything in the bottle. If you must dispose of leftovers, generally you should avoid pouring chemicals down the drain. If no disposable information is given, contact your local government office to find out about recycling programs and programs for disposal of household hazardous waste.
  • Don’t use the toilet as a trashcan. When the toilet is only flushed when human waste is in it, less water is sent to waste treatment plants, and the possibility of excess nutrients and bacteria entering the water stream is reduced. In general, you can also install a water-reduction device in the toilet to allow it to use less water per flush.
  • Keep septic tanks well maintained, so the excess nutrients and bacteria don’t seep into the ground and get into ground water.
  • Fix leaks. A small leak can add up to a lot of water down the drain. A leak that drips one drop of water per second could waste 165 gallons of water in just one month. That’s more water than the average person uses in two weeks.
  • Don’t use the garbage disposal. It burdens septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants. Either compost or throw the food in the trash can.
  • Take shorter showers.
  • Install a water-saving shower head. These special showerheads reduce the amount of water coming out of the shower. For a five-minute shower with one of these showerheads installed, only 14 gallons of water are used. A family of four people who each take a five-minute shower a day can save $250 a year using a water-saving showerhead. 
  • Run washing machines and dishwashers only when full. Use the lowest water setting possible for the amount of things you’re washing.
  • When hand-washing dishes, turn the water off until ready to rinse.

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To decrease toxins:

  • Use alternatives to common store-bought chemicals. Here’s a list of “recipes” for household chemicals. These alternatives are just as effective, but don’t harm the Bay.
“Store-bought” Chemicals
Bay-friendly alternative

Ammonia-based cleaners

Vinegar, salt and water for surface cleaning. Baking soda and water for the bathroom.

Abrasive cleaners

Rub area with one-half lemon dipped in borax or baking soda, then rinse. Or mix vinegar and salt and scrub with a sponge.

Floor or furniture polish

1 part lemon juice, 2 parts olive or vegetable oil. Or mix one teaspoon of olive oil with one teaspoon of water and the juice of one lemon

Toilet cleaners

Baking soda and a toilet brush.

Drain cleaners

Plunger, flush with boiling water, 1/4 cup baking soda, 1/4 cup vinegar.

Oil stains

White chalk rubbed into stain before laundering.

Glass cleaner

White vinegar and water or rubbing alcohol and water.

Copper cleaner

Paste of lemon juice, salt and flour.

Stainless steel polish

Baking soda or mineral oil for shining, vinegar to remove spots.

Stain remover


Mildew remover

Lemon juice and salt or white vinegar and salt

Oven cleaners

Wipe the spills when fresh, using baking soda, water, and a soft nylon scrubber.


Mix 4 teaspoon of baking soda in warm water.


Check with your local government anytime you need to dispose of items labeled:

  • flammable
  • caustic
  • corrosive
  • caution
  • danger
  • warning
  • poison

You may be able to take these things to local businesses, dispose of them on special collection days, or take them to a specially designated site.

  • Ask how the following materials should be disposed of. These things could harm waterways, wildlife, and humans.
  • Pesticides
  • Paints
  • Drain Openers
  • Old Medicine
  • Antifreeze
  • Cleansers
  • Asbestos Tile
  • Aerosols
  • Petroleum Products
  • Batteries
  • Solvents
  • Wood Preservatives
  • Used Oil
  • Mercury Thermometers
  • Fluorescent Light Bulbs
  • Polishes
  • Moth Balls
  • Brake Fluid
  • Thinners
  • Televisions and Video Equipment
  • Computers and Components
  • Gasoline


  • Support organic food. Organic food is grown without the use of toxins or chemicals. So it doesn’t contribute to the pollution of the Bay.

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To reduce trash:

  • Recycle paper, plastic, metal, and glass. This cuts back on the amount of waste generated, conserves energy, and saves natural resources, like trees.  Our trash is normally 37% paper, 10% glass, 10% metal, and 7% plastic. Much of that waste can be recycled.
  • Buy products in bulk, because there’s usually less packaging involved.
  • Reuse plastic and paper bags from the grocery store. Use them as liners for trashcans, as lunch bags, etc. Take any leftover bags back to the store. Many stores have bag recycling programs.
  • Use cloth bags when grocery shopping.
  • Write on scrap paper, and print double-sided when possible.
  • Buy reusable things, instead of disposable ones. Use sponges and cloth napkins instead of paper goods; electric razors instead of conventional razors; rechargeable batteries instead of one-time use batteries. Most of the waste that ends up in our trashcans is from disposable products and from excess packaging.
  • Start composting. Many things, including grass cut from the yard, leaves, tea bags, old bread, and coffee grinds can be composted. Compost is very beneficial to soil and plant life. There is lots of information available online or in the library that can help you and your family begin composting. The DNR’s website for composting using redworms is:
  • Donate old clothing and other items that you don’t want but that are still usable.

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Things you can do in the yard:

  • Plant native plants in order to reduce the amount of pesticides that you have to use and to prevent invasive species from taking root.
  • Leave grass clippings on the yard. This releases nitrogen into the soil, which decreases the need for fertilizers. Or you can compost the clippings.
  • Use hand tools or electric lawn tools, rather than gas-powered tools in order to reduce emissions.
  • Use pervious materials (wood chips, gravel, stepping stones, or bricks laid in sand) as an alternative to concrete or asphalt in your driveways and walking paths.
  • Let lawns “winter”. That means allow them to go through their natural cycles of life. If grass browns in the summer, it will re-green when the season changes. If you must water your lawn, use collected rainwater to water lawns, and water them deeply.
  • If you have to fertilize your lawn, use the correct amount of fertilizer, and do it at the right time of the year. Otherwise, fertilizer can leach into the ground and get into groundwater or surface water. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, autumn is the best time to apply fertilizer. Temperature, plant growth rates, and rainfall at that time of year encourage maximum uptake of the nutrients.
  • Plant a rain garden. This helps to reduce the amount of run-off from your property, and it beautifies your yard at the same time. There is lots of information available online about how to start a rain garden.
  • Make sure gutters and sprinklers drain into grass or gravel areas to reduce run-off and to increase absorption of rainwater. Too much runoff encourages erosion of soil and sedimentation of the Bay.
  • Plant trees. Not only are trees beautiful, but they also provide numerous environmental benefits. Their roots help prevent erosion. They absorb runoff. They help keep toxins, excess nutrients, and sediment from getting into the waterways. 
  • To deal with pet waste, wrap it securely and put it in the trash, flush it down the toilet, or bury it in a hole that’s 5 inches deep and located away from vegetable gardens or bodies of water. That keeps excess nutrients from finding their way into water, and it keeps harmful bacteria from contaminating food.
  • Don’t mow your lawn shorter than 3 inches. Otherwise, too much soil will be exposed, and it could lead to erosion.
  • Rather than using only pesticides to control insects in your yard, try to practice integrated pest management (IPM). IPM is a practice that combines biological, cultural, and chemical methods to control pests. This includes:
    • Checking plants regularly for signs of problems.
    • Treating only infected plants or lawn areas.
    • Identifying beneficial insects that provide natural pest control.

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Things you can do on the road:

Vehicles contribute a significant amount of toxins and pollution to the Bay watershed. Here are some ways to reduce that pollution:

  • Plan trips and combine errands to reduce the amount of miles that you’re driving.
  • If you’re idling for more than 30 seconds, turn the motor off. It burns more gas to idle than it does to restart the engine.
  • Organize or join a carpool to work, to school, or to after school and weekend activities. See if telecommuting to work is an option offered by your employer.
  • Keep your car maintained. Under-inflated tires reduce fuel efficiency. Mis-firing spark plugs, dirty carburetors and air filters, and a poorly tuned engine decrease fuel efficiency, lower engine performance, and increase emissions. A leaky crank case can let toxins leak out of the car.
  • Follow the posted speed limits. Driving at 65 MPH rather than 55 MPH increases fuel consumption by 20%. Driving at 75 MPH increases consumption by another 25%.
  • Clean out the trunk. Excess weight decreases fuel efficiency.
  • Dispose of oil and antifreeze properly. You can take used motor oil to most gas stations and mechanic shops, and they can recycle it or dispose of it for you. Do not pour it down the drain, because it can pollute the water. One quart can pollute 250,000 gallons of water.
  • Take old car tires to be recycled, rather than throwing them out.

  • Have your car inspected regularly. This ensures that your car is not emitting harmful toxins.

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