bright white living room at cottage with big windows

10 tips for eco-friendly cottage life

LIVE greener | 13 MIN READ | 2019-07-05

‘Tis the season for boat rides, swimming, eating oodles of watermelon and just laying low by the lake. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a cottage – whether it’s through family, a friend, or a rental company – it’s important not to forget the green efforts you practice at home. 

From grocery shopping en route to disposing of waste properly while you’re there, here’s 10 simple tips for going green at the cottage.

Tip 1: Practice producing less waste

wicker basket with pineapple inside

We meal prep and use reusable containers at home, so why wouldn’t we do it at the cottage? It’s understandable that when Friday comes around we want to hop in the car and rush to the closest lake, pick up pre-packaged foods (and way too many groceries), and just get there! But with some careful planning, a lot less food could be wasted and garbage used. 

Here are some quick tips to help reduce waste when living the cottage life: 

Plan meals ahead: Planned meals = an ingredients list. So you’ll know what to buy (and how much) versus what to bring from home.

o Buying only what you need and bringing the rest from home will reduce packaging and food waste, and in the end save you a bunch of money, too. Especially if your meal plan is to divide and conquer with a group. 

Cook food from scratch: At the cottage, you tend to have more time (especially if you unplug from the world), and cooking from scratch is fun! You’ll reduce your garbage waste from pre-made food packaging (which is usually wrapped in single-use plastics) and you’ll save money.

o Generally, pre-packaged meals = lots of waste. Plus, who doesn’t love a homemade pizza or mac ‘n’ cheese with breadcrumbs and bacon (mmm…)? 

• Bring reusable containers: When you head to the cottage and then home again, pack your food up in reusable containers. It’s that simple. 

o When you bring ingredients from home, bring them in the original, reusable jar they’re stored in (like mason jars) so that you can just as easily bring them back home when you’re done. Less wasted food and packaging, easy-peasy.

• Remember reusable shopping bags: When you do your cottage grocery shop, don’t forget reusable bags. They hold more, break less often, and are way better for the environment. Win, win, win!

• No plastic (personal-sized) water bottles – period. We get that some cottages don’t have running water, but it’s not an excuse to drink multiple plastic water bottles a day. Instead, buy or bring big jugs of water and use them to fill reusable glasses instead. Or, get a water filter. Done.

• Make a ‘no single-use plastic’ rule: Hop on that single-use plastic 2021 ban and make a rule that no one can use single-use plastics while they’re at the cottage. That will force people to use reusable items – including everything mentioned above.

Tip 2: Remember your three (or four) R's

simple cottage living room with antique furniture

Say it with us – reduce, reuse, recycle. The rules of R’s don’t go to the wayside when you’re relaxing at a cottage.

Here’s a refresher of the “waste hierarchy”: 

• REDUCE: Less waste = less to throw away.

o This speaks to everything from tip #1. 

o To sum it up, don’t buy too much and be sure to use what you already have. This will reduce both food and packaging waste (and save you money).

• REUSE: Did you use it once? That’s okay, use it again.

o Replace single-use plastics at the cottage with reusable items. Try starting with reusable napkins, dishes, and cleaning tools.

o Did you find something at the cottage you don’t need anymore? Find another use or donate it instead of throwing it away.

• RECYCLE: Proper recycling = less waste in landfills = more materials getting reused.

o Recycling means the material will be transformed into a raw material and used again for something else. When it’s put that way, it sounds so cool (and makes sense). So be sure you know what to recycle vs. throw out!

o Check out this short and sweet “trash it or recycle it” article to help with sorting – so simple!

An additional “R” we recently learned – REFUSE. Basically, “refuse” in the waste hierarchy means saying no to buying new things when you don’t need them. It means refusing disposable plastics (and choosing items that aren’t packaged in plastics), refusing plastic straws and refusing to use one-use items when you can use reusable instead (like utensils, bags and containers). 

Tip 3: Think before you throw it in the campfire 

fireplace at cottage with muskoka chairs around it

When you have a campfire at the cottage, burning firewood is more than okay (as long as there isn’t a fire ban at the time, of course). However, you should literally never burn garbage. Ever.

Burning garbage is referred to as open burning, and according to the Government of Canada, it’s so much more harmful to our health and environment than we could imagine. Even items like paper, cardboard and yard waste release harmful cancer-causing compounds and toxic substances when open-burned.

Not only is burning garbage bad for your health when breathed in directly, but it releases dioxins and furans into the environment which have been linked to serious health problems. These harmful chemicals settle on crops, in streams and in lakes and get ingested by animals (and people). So when you’re at the cottage, it’s super important to respect other humans and the environment and just not burn garbage (or your paper plate, and especially not your red solo cup).

Tip 4: Composting is still a thing in the country 

man kneeling down gardening

We might compost at home and then forget about it at the cottage, or think because we’re only there for a few days that it doesn’t matter. But check out all the benefits! Plus, you’ll have less waste to dispose of when you’re heading home, so that’s another plus.

Composting is oh-so-good for many reasons:

It saves water by helping soil hold moisture and reduce water runoff
It means less waste in landfills
It reduces the need for soil conditioners and fertilizers
It improves plant growth and makes your grass nice and healthy
It encourages healthy root structure in plants
It attracts and feed beneficial soil microorganisms
It helps control soil erosion
It decreases the use of petrochemical fertilizers
It can help reduce weeds when used as a mulch 

Tip 5: Show some local love 

small coffee shop with pastries on the counter

There are so many little things you can do to show local love. Between shopping local and picking up garbage when you see it, it’s a good idea to be kind to people and the planet no matter where you travel in life.

Here are some ways you can show some local love when you’re visiting a cottage:

• Shopping local is such a great idea for a few reasons: 

o It means supporting the local economy, as a lot of money spent locally stays in the community. And with a lot of small towns, “cottage season” floats entrepreneurs through the slower, winter months and keeps them from going out of business.

o Supporting small businesses (helping them stay in operation) means that locals don’t have to drive as far to get what they need, which is better for the environment too.

o It supports local jobs – both for cottagers who live there during the summer and locals all year-around.

o It means less greenhouse gases. Lighter vehicles use less gas, so go grocery shopping when you get there. 

• Pick up garbage: Part of local love is looking after the area, too. Picking up garbage when you see it keeps the outdoors beautiful and clean, and means less pollution in lakes, rivers and oceans.

• Market shopping tip: When you shop at local markets, return egg cartons and fruit baskets before you head home. Businesses would appreciate it, and you’re practicing one of the three R’s (reuse).

• Be kind: It can be tough for locals to suddenly have their otherwise quiet towns flooded with people and more traffic for a couple of months a year. Just because they work or live where you cottage, doesn’t mean they’re on vacation too. They still have to go about their day the same as you would in your hometown. So be sure to smile to people on the street, say thank you, and just be kind – even if you’re in a rush to start relaxing. 

Tip 6: Swap out those bulbs 

bathroom with wood vanity and plants on the counter

We replace light bulbs at home for energy saving LEDs, but what about at the cottage? Here are a few reasons to swap them out:

• LED lights use 80% less energy than traditional light bulbs. This means they last longer and will lower your electricity bill, can’t go wrong with that!
LEDs on average last 50,000-100,000 operating hours. That’s 2-4 times more than fluorescent bulbs and more than 40 times longer than the average incandescent bulb!
They’re safer than traditional incandescent bulbs. Where more than 90% of an incandescent bulb’s energy is emitted into heat (leaving just 10% of the energy for actual lighting), an LED bulb sits at around 5% of energy wasted on heat. So, they get less hot and lessen the heat hazard that comes with traditional light bulbs.
Where fluorescent or mercury vapour lights contain mercury in the bulb, LEDs don’t, meaning they’re more environmentally safe.
LEDs operate on very low voltages, meaning they’re safer to use and use less energy than other light bulbs.

Another way to save energy with lighting at the cottage? Install motion or sensor lights. They automatically turn on and off when you enter or leave a room (or area, you can install them outside too), so that you don’t need to stress about whether or not you left a light on.

Tip 7: Fix leaky faucets 

mint coloured kitchen with wood counters and plants

Fixing a leaky tap can save tens of thousands of litres of clean water every year, and it’ll save you money, too. Fun (yet not-so-fun) fact – the internal components of a toilet start to degrade after 4-6 years. If you have an old cottage, it’s possible that your toilet is leaking. But don’t worry, there are ways to find out by conducting a toilet dye test, and if it is, it’s likely a simple fix by replacing the toilet flapper valve.

All you need is food colouring or a dye tablet, and then you drop it in your toilet tank water (don’t flush) and wait 15 minutes or so. If you see colour appear in the toilet bowl, there’s a leak. At that point, it’s best to call a plumber (supporting local), or do some googling to find out if you can fix it yourself.

Tip 8: Before you shower or bathe in the lake...

two kids in the lake swimming

Always use environmentally friendly products when you shower or bath in the lake! Saying “oh well” when all you have is regular shampoo, conditioner and soap and bathing in the lake introduces chemicals that are harmful to nature and wildlife, and can cause excess algae.

Forgot to bring environmentally friendly shower products? Cottage Life says to use baking soda, as it cleans, exfoliates, and can be used from head to toe.

While we’re on the topic – Cottage Life also suggests using environmentally friendly sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain oxybenzone, which has been found to feminize male fish and harm coral reefs. Come to think of it, using natural products whether it’s sunscreen, shampoo, or toothpaste is generally a good idea. Especially if the cottage doesn’t have running water and what you’re using is flowing directly into the lake.

Tip 9: Use less electricity 

white cottage living room with big bright windows

While all forms of electricity generation have different impacts on the environment, reducing our use of electricity means burning less fossil fuels, and emitting less CO2 and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (AKA less air pollution). Plus, it seems that power costs more and more these days.

Here are some tips on using less energy while you’re at the cottage:

Take advantage of the daylight and only turn lights on at night.
Play games instead of watching movies.
Don’t use your phone – be present! If you don’t use it, you won’t have to charge it.
Turn electronics off when you’re outside! What’s the point of leaving the TV on when you stroll on down to the lake? Exactly.
Unplug your electronics when you head home.

o Did you know that electrical gadgets (the ones always plugged in) constantly use energy? It’s called phantom power use – even when turned off, the devices use power just by being plugged in. Phantom power is said to add roughly 10% to your energy bill! So, unplug electronics when you’re done with them.

Get to know your power on-, mid- and off-peak hours and use electricity accordingly (especially dishwashers and laundry machines).

Want more ideas? Check out this list of 10 ways to lower your electricity bill in the summer. 

Tip 10: Take less trips in the motor boat 

person canoeing in a lake with lots of trees in the background

We won’t tell you not to use motor boats, because we have to admit they’re pretty fun. But why not save your extra boating time for when you have guests?

Why should you reduce motor boat trips? 

According to Cottage Life, canoeing is better! It doesn’t pollute the water, plus paddling for 1 hour will burn 120 calories (that’s a slice of cake!).

Recreational boaters in North America leave 1 billion litres of hydrocarbon and oil pollution in the water every year (say what?!).

Another tip: When you do take out the motor boat, try not to create huge wakes (especially on small lakes). They crash to the shore and can destroy fish and plant habitats and suffocate underwater wildlife. 

Check out this site for more impacts of boating pollutants.

Cottaging is fun, relaxing and a time to be social with friends and family, but don’t forget about the planet while you’re living it up. After all, the reason the cottage is such an amazing experience is because you’re surrounded by nature, so let’s treat it with respect, no matter where we go.