Concern about the world’s leading environmental problems has grown from a simple inconvenient truth to movements large and small in countries around the globe. Students, activists, and concerned voters are calling for legislation to limit and repair environmental destruction, but individuals making a difference on their own are inspiring others to do the same thanks to social media and press coverage. New laws that enforce stricter standards and economic shifts toward greater sustainability are in the works, but until then, it’s our responsibility to make a difference.
In most cases, reducing your overall impact is as straightforward as just consuming less as rule. To help you identify some areas to focus on, consider our tips below to help save the planet.
Simplify Your Purchasing Habits
Most of us buy entirely too many things—and far too often. Mindless consumerism has been the norm for decades. Chances are, your closets and cabinets are cluttered with clothes you don’t wear, electronics you’ll never use again, soaps and cosmetics that you don’t like, craft or hobby supplies that you’ve lost interest in, and useless tchotchkes that seem to proliferate when no one is looking. So how did you end up with so many things you don’t want?
If you’re not the type who buys quality, second-hand goods after extensive research, the answer is most likely cheap labor. Cheap labor has made inexpensive, poorly-made clothing, toys, and electronics the norm in North America at all income levels. Low-income workers living in countries with weak labor standards and environmental protections have allowed the exploitation of both people and our planet’s resources.
The easiest solution that you can effect is to buy less and buy less often. Go a step further and stop shopping online when you’re bored. The next time you do go shopping, make sure you buy things that last. That roll of paper towels won’t last more than a week, so purchase cotton hand towels instead. Even better, just use the ones sitting in your linen closet. Apply this logic to every new purchase you can.
Reduce Your Energy Usage
Decreasing your electricity or gas usage takes some work, especially if you live an older building, but there are so many ways to cut your usage, that you can start today without even buying anything new. The easiest and most unpopular way to save energy—and, mind you, this is an excellent way to make some new enemies—is to turn off the air conditioning. Climate control accounts for about 20% of all residential energy use, but regional differences cause this percentage to soar in warmer climates. In spring and fall, you should be able to get away with doing this at least a month if you live near or above the Mason-Dixon line. Just crack your windows and turn on your fans to keep the air from stagnating.
Forgoing air conditioning in the South or heating in the North is an unreasonable ask for most people, however. Investing in double-paned windows, blinds, curtains, and curtain liners helps conserve energy, and you probably already have at least one of those at your disposal. Be sure to open and close your blinds to let sunlight (and heat) in during the winter, and keep them closed tight in the summer when direct sunlight is shining into your rooms. The thermostat might not read the air as substantially warmer or colder, but you should be able to feel a significant difference.
If you’re in the position to spend a little money to reduce your energy consumption, install a smart thermostat or add insulation to your attic. These solutions are relatively noninvasive and only take a day about today to add to your home.
Give Up Your Plastic Habit
The characteristics that made plastic such a boon to modern life—it’s cheap, lightweight, and long-lasting—has made it ubiquitous in our environment, causing catastrophic harm to wildlife, ecosystems, oceans, and even the air we breathe. Recent studies about the far-flung destinations of microplastics, the dander equivalent of disposable plastic goods and packaging, reveal that we are most likely inhaling plastic particles. Because they’re so light and refuse to biodegrade, they end up circulating our atmosphere as tiny shards and fibers.[3,4]
Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic packing and consumer goods are manufactured every year. As a middle class with disposable income grows in developing countries, this problem threatens to worsen at an exponential scale. Recent awareness and the ensuing movements around plastics resulted in plastic bag bans and taxes, and corporate commitments to eliminate plastic straws from multinational restaurants and cafes. Giving up your plastic habit tends to be easier to do if you live in an urban area. Zero-waste groceries stores are popping up in North America and Europe as more shoppers wish to eliminate plastic from their lives.
Ditch Disable and Single-use Plastics
The best ways to reduce your plastic consumption are to 1) stop buying things, 2) to stop purchasing products sold in single-use plastic containers, or 3) to avoid short-lived plastic disposables. Instead of ordering take out twice a week, take the time to sit at a real restaurant or cook at home. Eat with your “real” flatware and porcelain plates rather than their disposable equivalents. The cosmetics and health aisles at the grocery stores are rife with plastic disposables. Razors, toothbrushes, floss picks, cotton swabs, pre-moistened makeup wipes, blister packs of ibuprofen and cough medicine all have better alternatives. Buy your meds in larger sizes, your razors and toothbrushes with replaceable heads, and make sure your cotton swabs have a paper stick rather than a plastic one. Truly plastic-free options like straight razors or metal safety razors should be adopted with extreme prejudice if your hands aren’t steady.
Eat Less Meat
To raise livestock, forests have to be cut down or even razed for pasture land, large scale industrial breeding facilities, and grow grains to feed the animals. Even without the morally questionable practices inherent in industrial meat production, the consumption of animal protein is problematic in terms of human, economic, and environmental health. Raising billions of ruminants like cows and sheep for human consumption drives methane production on a dangerous, unsustainable scale. Carbon dioxide is a much more infamous greenhouse gas, but methane is 84 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Further, meat consumption strains water resources and increases soil erosion by removing native flora from cleared land for grazing. Once the Earth’s population hits 10 billion people, a milestone we’ll hit around 2050, it won’t be feasible to produce meat at the same scale we do now. While it’s unlikely that everyone will be willing to go plant-based, the United Nations finds that reducing your consumption to a minimum is essential to slow global warming.
Refuse and Reduce Before You Recycle
Recycling programs are being canceled all across the United States and more and more cities are throwing your recycling in landfills because these programs are no longer profitable. Prior to 2017, the US was shipping its recycling to China by the ton. Facilities there were able to repurpose our paper waste, cardboard boxes, and plastic bottles and give them a new life. However, Americans are notorious for not recycling properly. Materials destined for recycling are often contaminated with non-recyclable plastic films, greasy pizza boxes, yogurt cups, food remnants, plastic shopping bags.[8,9]
So even if you’re still diligently washing out your plastic containers, tearing your paperboard boxes into shreds, removing all the label stickers of your jars—chances are your recycling winds up in the same landfill with the rest of your garbage. It might seem like there’s no solution here, but the best bet is reduced the amount prepared and ready to eat the food you buy. Fruit and vegetables can be purchased fresh without packaging, and beans and grains are being sold in bulk in more stores every day. Simply bring your own reusable cloth bags or containers to the grocery store with you.
Make Smart Updates that Last
The things in your life have a shelf life, some are shorter than others. Planned obsolescence usually applies to handheld electronics, but it can also apply to your furnishings, clothing, appliances, and basically everything else you buy. If you try to make purchases that last years—if not decades—you end up using fewer resources over time. LED light bulbs are a perfect example, they last anywhere from 15-25 years. LEDs will also save you a substantial amount of energy on your lighting costs if you replace enough bulbs.
Consider the lifetime use of the things you buy when shopping. Short-lived fast fashion and flat-packed furniture you have every intention of getting rid of after a couple of years won’t last you, and you’re effectively losing money on these items once they inevitably fall apart. Buy durable goods when possible, or even better, buy them second hand to reduce the price point and give new life to items that are in still working order.
About 30% of what we throw away in our household garbage, should be composted instead. Composting your organic matter allows your food, yard, and paper waste to break down much more efficiently. If your vegetable peels and apple cores end up in the landfill, they can take decades to properly decompose if not composted. The oxygen-free and low light conditions of landfills stymie break down to the point that not only is degradation slowed, but microbes that live in and consume waste in this environment produce so much methane that some cities use it as fuel.
Much of your garbage can be composed in your yard or vermicomposted indoors—even in apartments. Paper bags, greasy paper towels, cotton rags, produce of all kinds, grass clippings, raked leaves, egg shells, and other things can all be safely composted. If you have the space, start composting at home. If you don’t have the space, look online for compost pick up service or drop off areas.
Plant a Tree
Though it’s become the stereotypical symbol Earth Day, planting trees can make a real difference if done right. There are an estimated 3 trillion trees on Earth at present, and scientists estimate an additional 1 trillion trees are needed to capture greenhouse gases and slow climate change. Organizations like Plant for the Planet, the UN, and the countries of China and Australia have bold ambitions to help plant more trees in deforested areas to slow global warming.
It’s important to grow the right kinds of trees, however. Native trees that will be able to grow for the next few decades without the threat of being cut down for lumber or burned in wildfires are our best bet. If you plan on planting a few trees, do some research and plant trees native to your area that will do best in your plant hardiness zone.
Join the Clean Energy Movement
With renewable energy becoming cheaper than traditional forms of energy—and generating hundreds of billions in economic activity—clean energy adoption is already growing by leaps and bounds around the world. Alternative forms of power such as wind, solar, hydro, bioenergy, and geothermal energy may soon overtake fossil fuel usage that contributes to global warming.
You don’t have to wait for renewable energy adoption to topple traditional forms of energy on your local grid, however. You can invest in and fuel the growth of green energy online today. Switch to a green energy plan or add offsets to your current plan to sharply reduce your carbon footprint while supporting green energy projects like wind farms and solar arrays.
1 Costa, Daniel. “The True Cost of Low Prices is Exploited Workers.” Economic Policy Institute. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.epi.org/blog/true-cost-of-low-prices-is-exploited-workers/
2 Clean Energy.” Energy.gov. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/home-cooling-systems/air-conditioning
3 Johnson, K., and Mendoza, L. “‘Plastic Smog’: Are We Breathing Plastic?” University of Wisconsin. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/75982/Plastic%20Smog%20Are%20We%20Breathing%20Plastic%20by%20Kristen%20Johnson.pdf;jsessionid=E541DBEA6449209256FC6B60F524ECBF?sequence=6
4 Parker, Laura. “We Made Plastic. We Depend On It. Now We’re Drowning In It.” National Geographic. August 2016. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/
5 “Methane: the other important greenhouse gas.” Environmental Defense Fund. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-other-important-greenhouse-gas
6 Godfray, H. Charles J., et al. “Meat Consumption, Health, and the Environment.” Science. July 20, 2018. Accessed April 04, 2019. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6399/eaam5324.
7 Carrington, Damien. “Eating Less Meat Essential to Curb Climate Change.” Our World: United Nations University. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/eating-less-meat-essential-to-curb-climate-change-says-report
9 Corkery, Michael. “As Costs Skyrocket, More U.S. Cities Stop Recycling.” The New York Times. Published March 16, 2019. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/16/business/local-recycling-costs.html
10 “Lighting Choices to Save You Money.” Energy.gov. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/save-electricity-and-fuel/lighting-choices-save-you-money
11 “Composting At Home.” Environmental Protection Agency. October 16, 2018. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home.
12 Ehrenberg, Rachel. “Global count reaches 3 millions trees.” Published September 02, 2015. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.nature.com/news/global-count-reaches-3-trillion-trees-1.18287
13 Tutton, Mark. “The Most Effective Way to Tackle Climate Change? Plant 1 Trillion Trees.” Accessed April 17, 2019.https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/17/world/trillion-trees-climate-change-intl-scn/index.html
14 “Clean Energy.” Energy.gov. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.energy.gov/science-innovation/clean-energy.