Nine Simple Ways You Can Reduce Your Environmental Impact

Climate Change: It’s real and it’s happening… fast!  Any long-term solution will require profound changes in how we generate energy and live our lives. In the meantime, there are everyday things that you can do to reduce your personal contribution to the destruction of the ozone. Here are nine simple guidelines on how your choices today affect the world of tomorrow.

  1. You’re better off eating vegetables from far, far away than red meat from a local farm…and let’s talk about almonds.

Eating local is encouraged and farmer’s markets are fun (gosh darnit!), but most carbon emissions resulting from food don’t come from transportation — they come from the production of the food itself, and the production of red meat and dairy is incredibly carbon-intensive!

Emissions from red-meat production come from methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Experts disagree about exactly how methane emissions should be counted towards the planet’s emissions tally, but nearly everyone agrees that raising cattle and sheep causes warming that is substantially more injurious to the planet than from raising alternate protein sources like fish and chicken.  An extra benefit from raising chickens is, of course, eggs!

According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon, a typical household that replaces 30 percent of its calories from red meat and dairy with a combination of chicken, fish and eggs will save more carbon than a household that ate entirely local food for a full year.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that there are water shortages happening everywhere! (Ahem, California!) Sure, we can desalinate the Ocean, but that’s a quick fix for a major issue. Cattle and sheep take huge amounts of water to sustain. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising? Almonds! Those delicious little buggers take 1.1 gallons of water PER almond to grow! That’s nuts! It’s also something to seriously consider during times of drought. Is that really what you want to spend your money (and clean water) on?

  1. Take the bus.

This is a bit of a no brainer. Global warming will inevitably lead to major climate catastrophes such as widespread flooding of coastal cities or the collapse of the food supply; and scientists have determined there’s only so much carbon dioxide we can safely emit before these catastrophes become our realities. Divvying up this global carbon fund among the world’s population gives us the average amount each person can burn per year over a lifetime — aka an annual “carbon budget.”

The current per capita emissions for Americans is about 10 times this limit, and given the relative affluence of this country, our emissions will not get down to the average anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. With this in mind, why not try riding your bike to work (if feasible) or taking the bus. Because as it stands now, if you drive to work alone every day, your commuting alone eats up more than your entire carbon budget for the year.

  1. Waste not, want not.

Scientists have estimated that up to 40 percent of food in American refrigerators is wasted. In fact, food waste occupies a significant chunk of our landfills, which in turn adds methane to the atmosphere as it decomposes. Even more importantly, wasted food adds to the amount of food that needs to be produced, which is already a big part of our carbon load, as mentioned above.

So how can this part of your carbon footprint be minimized? When shopping for food, plan out meals ahead of time and use a shopping list in order to avoid impulse buys. Once home, freeze food before it spoils.  Also, if you find yourself routinely throwing prepared food away, reduce portion sizes or freeze it immediately after serving in order to serve another day.

  1. Flying is bad, but driving can be worse.

Remember that annual carbon budget that was previously discussed? One round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles, and it’s up in smoke. So it’s fair to say that flying carries a pretty hefty carbon toll.

However, driving can actually carry a worse carbon footprint than flying. It’s something to keep in mind depending on the trip you’re taking. A cross-country road trip creates more carbon emissions than a plane seat. And while a hybrid or electric car will save significant gas mileage, keep in mind that most electricity in the United States still comes from fossil fuels.

If you really want to get the most bang for your buck and reduce your carbon footprint by as much as possible, then taking a train or a bus is your best bet, especially for shorter trips. And if you want to travel, certainly no one is dissuading you. However, when you decide to travel, travel smart.

  1. Cats and dogs are not a problem.

On occasion, the argument is made that pet ownership has a negative impact on the climate. At first, the argument might seem legitimate: Dogs and cats eat mostly meat, which is extremely carbon-intensive, so they must be driving carbon emissions.

But fear not, fellow pet lovers! That argument is relatively nonsensical! Our pets generally aren’t munching down on filet mignon; they’re eating the scraps, the meat bits that humans don’t want. When a cow is slaughtered, almost 50 percent of the animal is removed as unwanted or unfit for human consumption. The meat that ends up in pet food is a byproduct of human meat consumption, not a driver of it.

  1. Don’t buy a second car.

Buying a second car encourages the manufacturing of all of those raw materials and metals, even more so than simply replacing a used one.

Yet there’s a break-even point at which the carbon savings from driving a new, more efficient car exceeds the carbon cost required to produce it. For example, on average, trading in a 15-mile-per-gallon S.U.V. for a 35-m.p.g. sedan offsets the extra manufacturing costs within two years.

Anything you do to improve mileage will reduce your carbon output. Keeping to the speed limit and driving defensively can improve your mileage by more than 30 percent, according to the Department of Energy. Even something as simple as keeping your tires inflated and having your engine tuned up can give you up to a 7 percent bump in m.p.g. — and an average carbon savings of about what you’d save from eating only local foods all year.

  1. Buy quality, not quantity

It’s extremely useful to be mindful of what you buy and how much buy, in essence, your consumer footprint which, in turn, directly affects your carbon footprint. Making a new MacBook Pro burns the same amount of carbon as driving 1,300 miles from Denver to Cupertino, Calif., to pick it up in person.

At the other end of the product life cycle, reducing waste helps. Each thing you recycle is one fewer thing that has to be produced, and reduces the amount of material that ends up in landfills. But the recycling process consumes energy as well, so — depending on the material — it may not be as helpful as you might think. Recycling a magazine every day for an entire year saves less carbon than is emitted from four days of running your refrigerator.

It’s better not to consume the raw materials in the first place, so you may want to think carefully about whether you’re really going to use something before you buy it. Or better yet, buy used! Or are you a person that likes everything to be new? Fine, to each their own, then think about buying quality over quantity. Rather than buying a cheap blender that’s $15 but will break down in 6 months, buy a $150 blender that will last a lifetime.

  1. Use reusable grocery bags

Reusable grocery bags are great! Why? Because plastic grocery bags are a menace for a variety of reasons. For example, a plastic bag can take from 15 to 1,000 years to break down, depending on environmental conditions. In a landfill, kept away from the environment that would help them biodegrade more easily, paper bags unfortunately don’t do much better.

Furthermore, plastic bags don’t biodegrade, but they can break down through photo degradation. Photo degradation refers to decomposition through exposure to light, this causes the bag to break down into small, toxic particles.

As if the previous information wasn’t disturbing enough, an estimated one million birds, 100,000 turtles, and countless other sea animals die each year from ingesting plastic. The animals confuse floating bags and plastic particles for edible sea life such as jellyfish and plankton. Once ingested, the plastic blocks the digestive tract and the animals starve to death. Also, other animals drown after becoming entangled in plastic waste. So the next time you’re off to do some grocery shopping, be sure to grab your reusable grocery bag!

  1. Stop buying bottled water

The world’s climate issues are vast and complex. But it’s safe to say that humans are using the Earth’s resources faster than it can replenish itself. For example, with regards to water, it takes three times the volume of water to manufacture one bottle of water than it does to fill it, and because of the chemical production of plastics that water is mostly unusable. That means that it takes 3 liters of water to produce a 1 liter bottle of water. And the 3 liters used to produce that bottle of water becomes unusable after the fact, wasted.

Furthermore, 17 million barrels of oil each year is used just to produce all of those water bottles. To put this in perspective, that’s enough oil to keep a million cars fueled for a whole year. Talk about a carbon footprint!

With regards to recycling, 80% of the water bottles purchased end up in landfills, the absolute worst place for them to be. Why is this such a horrible place for water bottles to end up? Because water bottles are made of completely recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, but PETs don’t biodegrade. Similar to plastic bags, they photodegrade, which means they break down into smaller fragments over time. Those fragments absorb toxins that pollute our waterways, contaminate our soil, and sicken animals. Plastic trash also absorbs organic pollutants like BPA and PCBs. They may take centuries to decompose while sitting in landfills, amounting to endless billions of little environmentally poisonous time bombs.

So the next time you feel like drinking some water, buy a filter for your sink or your fridge and a water bottle. It’s much more efficient and environmentally friendly.

These changes are all things that you can do to contribute while we as a united world seek a sustainable, long-term solution to climate change.  In the meantime, I strongly urge you to advocate for public policies that support the development of clean energy and against corporate excess for profit. I look forward to seeing the progressive changes that will enrich all of our lives!