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Your carbon footprint is the total amount of carbon emissions (or equivalent) that you produce directly or indirectly. Greenhouse gas emissions and human activities are causing damage around the globe through climate change, mass extinctions, and pollution. So let’s look at five ways you can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint to have a smaller impact on our planet.
1. Refuse Single Use Items
Single use items are the bane of my existence. It’s hard to get around them. They’re everywhere, especially as litter on the street and in our oceans. The Ocean Conservancy hosted an International Coastal Cleanup Day in 2017 and tallied the results. Every single one of the top ten items (over 10 million of them!) collected on beaches worldwide was a single use item. Imagine if all that unnecessary litter disappeared.
Refusing to use single use items saves a lot of waste and energy and reduces demand for those products. By switching to reusable alternatives, you are voting with your wallet. Single use brands will see profits dipping (if enough of us make the switch). They will reduce the amount they produce to meet the lower demand, and if we’re lucky, they might realize the problem and change or discontinue that product.
The more times you use an item, the less impact it has per use. If you keep reusing and making do with what you have, you can make a huge impact on your carbon footprint. Remember, cutting something out completely is even better!
Here’s a quick list of ten common single use items along with their reusable counterparts:
- Plastic bags from the store → Your own reusable bags
- Plastic straw → Reusable metal straw
- Saran wrap → Beeswax wraps
- Paper towels → Cloth towels, rags, or “unpaper” towels
- Pads and tampons → Reusable pads, menstrual cup, or period-proof underwear
- Disposable plastic water bottles → Reusable water bottle
- Tissues → Hankies
- Tea bags → Loose leaf tea infuser
- Plastic pens → Refillable fountain pens
- Plastic floss → Silk floss
2. Eat A (More) Plant-Based Diet
Animal agriculture is responsible for 44 percent of human-caused methane emissions and five percent of human-caused carbon emissions. Converted to CO2 equivalent, animal agriculture emits 7.1 gigatons every single year (7.1 billion tons). To put that into perspective, the average car produces under five metric tons per year.
A large portion of the food we grow is fed to grow animals. Because of this energy funnel, it takes over eight times the water to create one pound of beef and over two times the water to create one pound of chicken as it takes to create a pound of pasta (using this source for numbers). Compared with a pound of a potatoes, the numbers are 54 times and 15 times respectively. This news story from Cornell claims the US could feed 800 million people with the grain it feeds to its livestock.
And it goes much deeper than just raising the animals. Animal agriculture is responsible for much of the deforestation around the world, especially in places like the Amazon. Land is cleared for grazing as well as growing animal feed. Because 45% of the world’s land is devoted to livestock, animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction. In addition, herbicides and pesticides used on animal feed also run off and pollute water ways and deplete soil nutrients making it even harder for native species.
A Mediterranean diet produces 2.8 tons of CO2 per person per year, a vegetarian diet produces 1.7 tons, and a fully vegan diet produces 1.5 tons (2.5 is the average omnivorous diet). A study by Oxford University found a vegetarian diet can reduce your carbon footprint by 73%.
Those following a Mediterranean diet do not consume much red meat. Most of their protein comes from seafood, poultry, legumes, nuts, and oils. There have been many studies that show positive health effects of the Mediterranean diet, as well as with vegetarian and vegan diets.
For help on transitioning your diet, check out this article or this one. Start small and just cut out meat one meal a day, or one day a week (Meatless Mondays). Eating less meat and animal products, no matter how much less, will contribute a lot to reducing your carbon footprint.
Everything and everyone travels. You go to and from work every day along with most other people. Items on store shelves can travel thousands of miles by boat, railroad, and truck before it reaches the store. Fifteen percent of global emissions comes from the transportation sector.
There are many ways to cut down on your transportation emissions. First of all is, of course, drive less and carpool. Make big round trips to multiple stores instead of a bunch of single trips back and forth from home. Take public transportation if available in your area. Walk or ride a bike or scooter to nearby places around the neighborhood.
Instead of big vacations to far off destinations, discover what your area has to offer. Have a stay-cation or just travel closer to home (the nearest big city or the next state over for example). My honeymoon a few hours north to New Hampshire was just as fun than a vacation to the Caribbean would have been. There’s exciting activities, great hikes, and places to get some R&R pretty much anywhere you look!
Choose road trips over plane rides. While maybe not the best with small children, road trips can be fun both on the way there and back and at the destination itself. If you still want or need to fly, you can buy carbon offsets from airlines or other organizations to cancel out your portion of the flight’s carbon footprint.
This way to reduce your carbon footprint stems from the previous two: eating a better diet and reducing transportation. Take those a step further by combining them.
Switching to a more plant-based diet also involves giving up all those processed and packaged foods. You won’t find Ho-Hos at the farmers market. That’s good for both your health and the planet. You won’t be eating boatloads of sugar, preservatives, and artificial dyes, and you’ll save on all the packaging waste.
This tip doesn’t actually require you to convert from omnivore to herbivore because can still get meat, dairy, and eggs from local providers. As I’ve said though, reducing your animal product consumption will reduce your carbon footprint. But if you are going to eat animal products, please get them local.
Buying locally produced items drastically cuts down on transportation emissions since items are moving across town or the state instead of around the globe. Try walking or biking to your local store or farmers market to reduce emissions even more. Locally made items may also have greener production practices, more ethical treatment of workers, and use local materials. Do your research first!
Shopping local for groceries (and beyond!) also supports your neighbors’ livelihoods instead of lining the pockets of corporations. Buying local is another way of voting with your wallet to say you don’t want global production that harms workers, communities, and the environment. For specific examples, take a look at my post on fashion to learn about the horrible problems this one industry causes.
Have Fewer Children
Some people don’t like to hear this one, but it’s true. Human overpopulation is a serious concern. More people means the need for more food, more water, more energy, more living space, just MORE. Each person on average is responsible for around 360 metric tons of carbon during their lifetime (given 5 metric tons per year and a life expectancy of 72 years). Currently, humans are using over 1.7 Earths of resources, but our population is still expected to increase by two billion people in the next 30 years.
When you think about it, you are responsible for the carbon footprint of your child, your child’s child, you child’s child’s child, etc. By having fewer children, you essentially save an infinite amount of emissions in the present and the future.
If you still want to have children, by all means have them. But please teach them to be responsible caretakers of the earth. Raise them to be content without a toy chest exploding with toys they rarely play with. Teach them homesteading skills like sewing, gardening, and cooking. Raise brave leaders who know to speak up against the injustices in our world and to help their fellow man, animal, and plant.
While perhaps you can’t or don’t want to make every one of these changes and do so perfectly, perfection is not the end goal. We need lots of people going zero waste imperfectly rather than a few people doing it perfectly (whatever perfectly means since actual zero is impossible). Do what you can and encourage others to do what they can too.
Want to learn about some more ways to reduce your carbon footprint? Check out some of these other posts: