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6 Unexpectedly Easy Ways to Decrease Your Carbon Footprint

6 Unexpectedly Easy Ways to Decrease Your Carbon Footprint

Amanda Pell 

  Image via Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

When whales need saving, the ozone needs repairing, and there’s a huge plastic garbage island floating in the Pacific, what can one person’s actions possibly do to help save the environment?

It’s easy to feel like there’s not a lot you can do as one person. You can’t exactly regulate big business on your own or sign the Paris Agreement as a citizen of the world (though that would be cool). We don’t blame you for feeling overwhelmed, but there are plenty of surprising ways you can make an impact. All it takes is a little conscious effort. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

1. Pick a sustainable vacation.

Up your travel game and experience authentic destinations by looking for locales that show a commitment to sustainable tourism. New Zealand, Panama, and Slovenia rank among the top great sustainable destinations. New Zealand, for example, has adopted 14 sustainable tourism business and industry goals—like paying fair wages to tourism-industry staff and encouraging businesses to participate in carbon reduction programs. Domestically, many resorts and hotels have also incorporated new sustainability practices. Inn Serendipity in Browntown, Wisconsin and Sadie Cove in Homer, Alaska both run on alternative energy, while Ahwahnee Resort Hotel in Yosemite National Park has found ways to incorporate sustainability through native landscaping that doesn’t alter the original 1927 building and grounds.           

Making eco-friendly choices as a tourist matters, too. Book non-stop flights with airlines offering carbon offset programs (like Delta, British Airways, or United), or try a long scenic train ride instead. Pick hotels with U.S. Green Building Council certifications, and see if you can opt out of daily towel and sheet cleanings. And of course, make sure any souvenirs you pick up don’t damage local plant and wildlife populations.

2. Cut down on online shopping.

You can get anything—including groceries from your local grocer—delivered to your doorstep these days. The logic is sound. You’re busy, online retailers are always open, and who really likes shopping for necessities? But heavy reliance on online shopping can be determinantal to your sustainable efforts.

Shipping direct-to-doorstep requires additional packaging. Containers and packaging make up a major portion of solid waste, accounting for 77.9 million tons in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—a problem that will likely only get worse are our dependence on online shopping grows. Grocery deliveries aren’t much better since most are delivered double-bagged to protect the goods and don’t offer the option to use a reusable bag. Plus, if your order isn’t coming from a local supplier, chances are they’re transported by medium and heavy-duty trucks—which account for nearly a quarter of the transportation industry’s carbon footprint.

When you do shop online, opt for retailers that offer in-store pickup. The majority of delivery truck emissions come from what’s called “the last mile” —the trip from the distribution center to the package’s final destination. With in-store delivery, most packages are sent to the same handful of places, cutting down on the number of “last mile” trips made to individual homes.

3. Choose a green bank.

By storing your funds with a bank, you’re essentially lending your money to that institution in return for their safe keeping (and possibly earning a small amount of interest, depending on which products you choose). Banks make money by pooling resources from all their customers’ accounts and investing in various markets and industries. Since investing typically offers a higher rate of return than say, an interest-bearing checking account, the bank profits off the difference between what it earned from an investment and what it paid to you as a customer. It’s always been that way—but you may not love what your bank is actually investing in.

For example, according to a report by a coalition of environmental organizations, bank lending to tar sands oil extraction and pipeline projects grew by 111 percent from 2016 to 2017, reaching nearly $47 billion. Thousands of people protested the Dakota Access Pipeline, but many of their banks funded that pipeline directly.

Do research to find out how your bank invests your money. If those investments don’t help make the world a better place, it might be time to move on.

4. Go (partial) vegetarian.

Cutting down on meat can help the environment. Meat products have larger carbon footprints than grains and vegetables based on energy-hogging alone. Cows, for example, eat grain feed, which requires water, fertilizer, and gas-powered machinery to grow and harvest. Then the cows themselves require food, water, and gas- and electric-powered machinery to raise and slaughter. In the end, a single cow consumes an immense amount of resources and only ends up producing about 500 pounds of beef. A single cow also expels between 30 and 50 gallons of methane — one of the nastier greenhouse gases — daily. Multiply that by the approximately 1.5 billion cows on the planet, and you’ll start to get a clearer picture of just how much damage the meat industry does to the environment.  

By going vegetarian once or twice a week, you can cut seriously cut back on your personal carbon and water footprints. Skipping just one quarter pounder is equivalent to saving water for 1,700 people, while going meatless one day a week for a year saves the equivalent of 348 driving miles in emissions, according to The Monday Campaigns, the nonprofit behind the Meatless Monday initiative.

5. Try out telecommuting.

Remote workplaces are popular for a host of reasons that benefit both employer and employee—like creating a better work-life balance, higher productivity, and lower office and commuting costs. Working from home is also better for the environment.

Sure, working from home isn’t for everyone, and it can take some getting used to, but going fully remote can seriously offset your overall carbon footprint. If you are working remotely, there are steps you can take to make your day the most comfortable and productive—like setting up a dedicated, natural light-filled home office and taking regular breaks outside in nature.

If your job is less flexible, try negotiating a compromise that works for both you and your employer. Start by asking to work from home one day each week on a trial basis. Even skipping your commute just one day per week represents a substantial decrease in your carbon emissions. (You can use this calculator to figure out exactly how much!)

6. Buy better clothes.

We aren’t making this up: small tweaks to your wardrobe can help the environment. “Fast fashion” is the technical term for brands like H&M and Forever21 that churn out high volumes of low-quality clothing meant to last only a season or two.

This cycle of short use leads to a demand for a lot more clothing, which in turn has a negative impact on our resources. According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, the production of one cotton shirt uses 2,700 liters of water. Clothing factories expel toxic dyes and plastic microfibers into the environment. And on the back end, the disposal of worn-out clothing adds up to 92 million tons of solid waste each year.

Instead of buying low-quality budget items, save up and invest in pieces that last longer, and, when you can, opt for repairing rather than replacing. Tailor your tastes to longer trends instead of the trend of the day, so you don’t feel a need to update your wardrobe so often. And if you’re feeling inspired, join the movement to get fast fashion brands to slow down.

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