The recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5°C, is a clear and scientifically founded call for change in human behavior in order to save the environment from disastrous changes. The summary: Humanity has 12 years to change its ways. Let’s get started right now.
What can you do today to make a difference in your carbon footprint? We’ve got 10 suggestions that will take a moment of your day or, at most, a couple of hours and a small out-of-pocket investment to improve your environmental impact — in most cases, those costs turn into long-term savings.
Everyone has to change. Too often, scientists and policymakers focus solely on the big trends instead of the aggregate behaviors that make up those trends, claiming that individuals can do very little to create a better environment. In fact, every action we take makes a large or small impact on the environment, so our decisions to change how we purchase, what we eat, how we dispose of stuff, and our role in the economy as a whole shape the alarming CO2 emissions trends.
Yes, the auto industry can change its emissions standards to make overall improvements, but those of us who buy cars can make even larger contributions than buying a more efficient car; we can use the cars we have more efficiently — or replace them. Our participation in change is important. Even small actions will contribute to a more stable, human- and wildlife-friendly world.
1. Have Salad for Lunch Today and Every Day
American homes produce an average of 8.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually through their food and energy consumption. Eighty-three percent of that CO2 is related to food production. The largest contributor to your food-related CO2 output are ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep. Giving up beef, lamb, and pork at lunchtime — assuming you eat a quarter-pound of one of those meats five days a week — would reduce your carbon output by between 2,541 and 783 pounds a year. Here’s the breakdown based on a Washington Post analysis:
- Lamb: 21.57 pounds of CO2 per quarter-pound serving or 2,541 pounds of CO2 a year
- Beef: 14.85 pounds of CO2 per quarter-pound serving or 1,749 pounds of CO2 a year
- Pork: 6.65 pounds of CO2 per quarter-pound serving or 783 pounds of CO2 a year
Cheese, farmed salmon, and turkey are other high-CO2 sources of protein. Think about how to limit those items at lunch, too.
2. Use Separate Bins to Sort Your Recycling
The U.S. recycling industry is in a crisis because China recently banned imports of contaminated recyclables. Simply put, China stopped accepting poorly sorted recycling, because more than a fifth of materials sent from the U.S. is too contaminated with other waste to profitably recycle. The solution starts at home; each American can do a better job of sorting their materials. The first step is to purchase or use existing bins to sort plastics, paper, and metal recyclables for separate bags to put out for curbside pickup.
Not only will your diligence when sorting recyclables make the system work better, it will also prepare the U.S. to process its own materials profitably. With less contamination at the curbside, there will be more profit in each ton of plastic, paper, metal, e-waste, and other recyclables. So, by starting your efforts at home, you can also help build a robust U.S. recycling system that competes with European success rates, which are almost twice the U.S. recycling rate.
3. Practice a Single-Driver Vehicle Sabbath
The daily break from work ensconced in Judeo-Christian and Muslim religions can be adapted to many aspects of modern life to make a big difference in our sustainability and sanity. For instance, a “tech sabbath” — during which you put down the mobile phone and other digital devices for 24 hours — can be a psychic relief.
We’ve extended this to driving solo. Refuse to drive in a car by yourself (or just refuse to get into a car) one day each week. The act of thinking before getting in the car alone when others in the house may need to go out, combining several trips into one, is excellent mental preparation to review every use of a car the rest of the week.
Use one day a week to think through all your driving habits, then extend the practice to every day of your life.
4. Volunteer to Reduce Food Waste
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30 to 40 percent of food grown and produced in the country is wasted, going to landfills or spoiling instead of feeding people. With 40 million Americans, about 11 percent of the population, going hungry, the math shows we have enough food to feed everyone. The challenge is getting it to those people. Feeding America has embraced this mission with growing success, having already recovered 3.3 billion pounds of food. Feeding America partners with restaurants and grocers— including Starbucks, Kroger, and Walmart— to route unsold food at retail to local food banks. Each evening, for instance, unsold Starbucks sandwiches and salads are donated through its FoodShare program.
It doesn’t take a massive organization to make a difference. Join a local food bank as a volunteer; ask at church or other events about local food programs. Feeding America can connect you to local programs or you can donate to support their work in your area. The USDA has programs for rural and farm communities, in addition to background about successful food distribution programs. If you need inspiration, listen to our recent interview with Liz Baldridge, direct of Sustainability and Food Waste Initiatives, and Zuani Villareal, director of communications at Feeding America.
$218 billion in food is wasted in the U.S. annually. And food waste accounts for 21 percent of landfill volume. Eliminating wasteful food practices will help people in your hometown and the planet. It’s one of the most fulfilling ways to help.
5. Get a Home Energy Audit and Act on It
The house, apartment, or condo in which you live probably needs an upgrade to take advantage of modern materials that lower energy use and costs. If your dwelling dates from before 2000, a home energy audit will almost certainly pay financial and ecological dividends. “Passive house insulation practices can reduce your energy needs by 80-90 percent,” author B.F. Nagy writes in The Clean Energy Age. Nagy discussed his advice on Earth911’s Sustainability in Your Ear podcast.
The place to start with a home energy audit is your local utility. Many utilities offer energy audits or connections to local experts. They will come to your home, check for opportunities to improve every aspect of your heating and cooling, insulation, windows, crawl spaces, attics, and other sources of heat leakage. These audits can cost between $200 and $500, while the savings can run into the thousands of dollars after the first year or two. Using your home energy audit, you can make decisions about where to invest with an understanding of the savings and incentives you can collect.
If you are considering solar power or water heating, EnergySage provides free advice and helps organize tax and other incentive programs to lower the cost of adopting renewable energy at home.
6. Stop Stealth Electronics Energy Waste
Smart homes are always consuming power. Stealth electronics are devices that suck small, but meaningful, amounts of power all day long. Your smart TV. The coffee maker. Computers, smartphones, printers, computer monitors, alarm clocks, and even crockpots can be sources of unwanted expense and carbon dioxide production. The trick is recognizing what is stealthily pulling power when you are not actively using it. Earth911’s Sarah Lozanova discussed stealth electronics on Sustainability in Your Ear in June.
Learn to unplug the devices that don’t completely turn off when you don’t need them. Plug your computer monitors and printer into a power strip that you switch off when leaving the office. Don’t leave the coffee maker plugged in when you are away from home. Recognize and act when you see the tell-tale sign of a power drain: LED indicator lights that are glowing are consuming your energy and adding to the bill. Ultimately, you should consider recycling old stealth electronics in favor of new models that are energy responsible, when possible.
7. Recycle 100 Pounds of Unused Metal
Here’s a chance to make some money while feeling good about your contribution to the planet. We’re confident that most homes contain more than 100 pounds of unused metal that can be recycled for a cash payment. Is there an old freezer in your garage or basement? Do you have bins of yard equipment you no longer use? Even rusted tools can earn scrap metal payments. Are there old metal chairs on the deck no one would consider sitting in? Did you inherit a dozen boxes of pipes and fittings?
No matter the source, steel, iron, aluminum, copper, and other metals are worthwhile recycling targets. Look for them and act now. You’ll end up with cash in your pocket and the recycled materials made from your scrap metal will require 70 percent less power to produce compared to raw ore.
8. Volunteer to Help Local Schools Recycle
Earth911 hears from parents and teachers every week who want to start a school recycling program. Schools, besides being the best place to show kids how to practice their environmental values, are hotbeds of waste. The cafeteria in an American school wastes more food on average than the nation at large.
The School Cafeteria Discards Assessment Project can connect your local school to experts and arrange for an audit of the food service programs for waste. Earth911 has also collected resources for school cafeteria programs.
But don’t stop at the lunchroom! There are simple steps to take when starting a school recycling program. If there is no recycling program in place in the administrative office or classrooms, work with your local hauler or waste management office to get bins and pickups scheduled. Set up projects to educate both staff and students about the implications of their recycling decisions. Be sure to share the results with all the people involved, young and old, to stimulate more participation. Nothing succeeds like success in building energy, but don’t be afraid to ask for help when the program hits road bumps. Sometimes, all people are waiting for is an invitation to solve a problem.
9. Ban Unnecessary Plastics From Home
Single-use plastic and plastic pollution go hand-in-hand, it is ubiquitous and wasteful. Plastic soda and water bottles are prime culprits in water pollution, but plastics are a problem wherever they are used once and disposed of, including the myriad bottle caps and seals, straws, packaging, doohickies, and tabs that come with consumer products.
Plastic recycling levels in the U.S. are falling. In August 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the country recycled only 9.1 percent of its plastic waste in 2017, down from 9.5 percent in 2015. We can and must do a better job, as recycled plastic reduces energy used to make new products. Just one ton of recycled plastic saves “642 kWh of energy, 1.8 barrels of oil, and 4 cubic yards of landfill space.” If Americans had recycled just 30 percent of the 34.5 million tons of plastic produced in the U.S. in 2015, the results would save 18.6 million barrels of oil and 41.4 million cubic yards of landfill capacity.
Just as you might audit your energy use or home waste, take the time to inventory the single-use plastics you use. Identify what you can live without easily and stop buying those forms of plastic. Then, you face the harder part: How to reduce the plastics that are genuinely convenient.
We have a strategy to suggest. Take the results of your inventory and estimate how much you spend on products with plastic packaging or other plastics that you would like to see replaced with reusable or nontoxic, biodegradable alternatives, then send the makers of the products that use convenient-but-polluting plastic the estimated amount of spending you will cut if they don’t change. If 100 people confront a brand with an estimated reduction in spending, that company will reconsider its designs.
10. Adopt LED Lighting
Potentially the most productive change you can make today is the switch to LED lighting in your home. LED lights consume one-sixth the electricity of traditional incandescent lighting and 40 percent less power than compact fluorescent (CFL) lighting. Add to that the drastically increased lifespan of LEDs, which last 21 times longer than incandescent bulbs and three times longer than CFLs, and the savings in power, hassles (who likes changing bulbs?), and money are enough justification for upgrading. The planet will thank you, too.
Now, get out there and start the change. We have 12 years. Let’s make the most of them.