10 Easy Actions to Make a Real Impact on the Environment

It’s that time of year again, when we all vow to exercise, eat healthy, and work on our personal goals. But in light of some of the decisions the current administration is making regarding climate change and the environment, it might also be time to think about how to make a better impact on the Earth and its resources.

The average American is responsible for about 19.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person. This places us at 13 out of 195 on the global list in terms of energy usage and production of greenhouse gases. Research suggests that with careful planning and conscientious habits, the human carbon footprint can be reduced by over half of this figure, down to 8.5 metric tons per person. For an idea of the size of your own carbon footprint, this EPA Carbon Footprint Calculator takes into account your home, your energy usage habits, and how you handle your waste, while also offering plenty of tips and ideas for reducing your energy usage in your own life. Make a utility company comparison and make sure to choose the energy company that offers cheap but quality energy plans.

Climate change is scary, and in large part due to the actions of just a few huge corporations, the world around us is changing very quickly. It’s hard to feel like we can make a difference as individuals, but to be honest, every little bit helps. Here are a few ideas on how to make a positive impact on the environment on a personal level.

1. Share Your Commute

Like we learned as children, sharing is caring, and the same goes for transportation. According to this study by the University of Michigan carbon emissions from cars and trucks account for approximately 16% of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the US. This means that for an individual, reducing this number can make a large difference on your overall environmental impact. Even if you don’t live in a city where public transportation is an option, look into carpooling for your daily commute. Most states and large cities have carpooling resources available on their Department of Transportation websites, and apps like iCarpool and Waze can help you find people in your area looking to ride share. Not only will this help to reduce your carbon footprint, but it may also decrease your costs of transportation through shared expenses. By reducing the number of cars on the road, we can cut down on the 1.1 billion metric tons of CO2 emitted each year by road vehicles in the US.

2. Stop Wasting Food

Of all the food produced in the entire world each year for human consumption, it is estimated that about one third is lost or wasted. In the US, more than 40% of food waste occurs at a production level and at the retail level, because in American culture we tend to place an extra emphasis on the physical appearance of our food. This means that unconventionally shaped gets tossed to the wayside, even though its only flaws are aesthetic. Companies like Imperfect Produce offer boxes of “ugly” fruit and vegetables shipped to customers at very reasonable prices, and help to ensure that these perfectly tasty foods are not wasted. Consumers can also make an effort not to prepare more food than they need, or if they do, save it as leftovers. Taking home doggy bags from restaurants, eating leftover dinner for lunch the next day, and planning out meals for the week before grocery shopping can all help to keep personal food waste to a minimum.

3. Shop Smarter

Shopping for groceries presents potential for waste in a number of ways, but by planning ahead, some of these can be prevented or reduced. Not everyone can afford to buy organic or top quality food, and that’s completely understandable, but there are plenty of other ways to shop smart. By shopping for foods that have less packaging, we can cut down on the amount of unnecessary plastic, paper, and other materials that end up in landfills. When you do buy foods that are packaged, try and make sure that the bottles, boxes, or plastic tubs they come in are recyclable. It’s also a great idea to plan your meals, or at the very least make a list before shopping. Both of these things have multiple benefits, like eliminating the need to drive to the grocery store more often than necessary, and also preventing you from buying more food than you need, therefore reducing the amount of food that gets wasted. Food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas which is almost 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and with a little planning before heading to the grocery store, you can ensure that the food you buy gets used.

4. Support Local Companies

Shopping local means that companies don’t need to spend as much money or energy on transporting their services and goods. Most local businesses leave a much smaller carbon footprint than large corporations. The average carrot travels 1,838 miles before it becomes part of your meal, and such a lengthy trip means a large cost both monetarily and environmentally when it comes to transportation and packaging. Local businesses, however, don’t have so far to travel, and since most local food producers work on a seasonal basis, the impact of their food production will have be much smaller than large companies who grow food out of season. Supporting local food producers, companies, artists, and other businesses in your community will reduce the need for transportation, and also keep money in the local economy, which in a lot of ways is just another type of recycling.

5. Eat Less Meat

No one is asking you to go vegan, but the fact is that as a general rule, eating a plant based diet puts much less strain on the environment than a meat based one. This isn’t completely infallible, as research indicates that the production of tofu, quorn, and other protein-packed meat substitutes requires almost as many resources as the production of some meats, but it all depends on what your diet looks like to begin with, and what the tofu is being swapped for. So much of the carbon emissions created by eating meat comes from transportation, and cutting meat from your diet just once a week can reduce your carbon footprint by saving as much as 1,160 miles worth of transportation. Even if you decide that becoming a vegetarian isn’t for you, it’s still possible to reduce your carbon footprint by eating less carbon intensive meats. Replacing beef with chicken for one year, for example, will reduce your carbon footprint by almost 900 pounds of CO2.

6. Plant a Garden

Planting a garden, be it a window box outside your apartment or a full veggie patch in the backyard, can bear a lot more fruit than just the edible stuff. First of all, plants help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air through photosynthesis, and give off oxygen. Growing vegetables means you’ll have some delicious, local food to eat and share with friends, growing flowers will add some natural beauty to your home, and both of these types of gardens will hopefully attract bees. Bees are incredibly important to the natural ecosystem — they pollinate roughly 1/3 of everything we eat and help maintain biodiversity and plant growth — but due to Colony Collapse Disorder, they are in trouble. Nectar and pollen from flowering plants provide bees with a food source, and we can help them out by planting native wildflowers for them to eat and pollinate. For the most bee-friendly garden, studies suggest that plants with single flowers, tubular flowers, and those that are purple in color are best.

7. Have Fewer Children

It’s a deeply personal choice, and probably the most controversial item on this list, but the decision not to have children, or even to have one less child than planned, means that there is one less carbon footprint that will be left on the Earth, and can save a staggering average of 59 metric tons of CO2, making it the single most effective way to impact the environment as an individual. As citizens of developed countries however, this choice serves mostly as a counterbalance, because rates of childbirth are so high in developing countries. The decision not to have children for environmental reasons is a philosophical, ethical, and undoubtedly provocative one, and there will always be people who want to have children of their own, but with the use of family planning or perhaps by considering adoption instead of biological reproduction, we can help to ease a bit of the enormous strain that our mere presence places upon the Earth.

8. Cut Down on Disposable Products

On average, an American family uses about 1500 plastic shopping bags in a year, and Americans as a whole use approximately 100 billion disposable bags each year. (A report by Waste Management indicates that only about 1% of these bags are ever recycled.) In our culture, it’s the accepted norm to drink our coffee from paper or styrofoam cups, use paper towels to mop up every mess, and eat from plastic, styrofoam, or paper plates to save on cleanup. But making a few changes, like purchasing a reusable, BPA-free water bottle, asking your barista to put your coffee in a travel mug instead of a paper cup, or telling the restaurant where you order your takeout that you don’t need plastic silverware or napkins, we can curtail the amount of plastic, paper, and other disposable packaging that is produced and consequently wasted. Some states are taking this very seriously, with legislature that regulates the use of plastic grocery bags, and encourages consumers to use canvas or cloth bags when shopping, but even if you don’t live in a state where this is legally enforced, it can’t hurt to start keeping a canvas tote in your purse or in the trunk of your car.

9. Skip the Dryer

Between electricity, water, heat, and gas, we use a lot of energy in our homes. One of the biggest culprits here is laundry, and by choosing to air dry our clothing instead of putting it in the dryer, we can save massive amounts of energy each year (not to mention prolong the life of our clothing). If you have a yard or even a large open space in your home, a clothesline will dry your clothes in no time, and even if you’re in a small, cramped apartment, a folding laundry rack like this one is a great solution. Hand washing clothes in cold water is also a great way to save energy, and products like Drumi or other hand-powered washing machines ensure that both water and electricity are conserved.

10. Stop Buying New

Each year, the average American discards about 82 lbs of textiles and clothing, largely due to the fact that fashion is more affordable than ever, and we now purchase 400% more clothing each year than we did just two decades ago. To combat this, visit your local thrift store next time you need a new dress or a pair of shoes. Shopping second hand can be a lot of fun, and the clothes you find at thrift shops will be unique and much cheaper than buying new. Similarly, when you’re looking to downsize your wardrobe, donate to consignment shops, second hand stores, or homeless shelters to ensure that your clothes receive a second life with someone else instead of taking up space in a landfill. Looking for a good book to read? Borrow one from a friend, invest in an e-reader, or check out your local library for the sake of the trees. Need new furniture? Check out Craigslist’s “free” section, estate sales, or your local consignment shop. You’ll save loads of money, often obtain products with more character and of higher quality than buying new at Target or IKEA, and reduce the necessity for the production of new items. Most of the items we “need” for our homes and every day lives exist already, and by eliminating the emphasis for brand new products, we can recycle and use the ones that are already out there.

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