More or less everything we do as functioning members of society involves some degree of material consumption—it’s unavoidable. What’s sad is that consumption is almost always synonymous with waste, as well as a hefty carbon footprint.
See, our personal consumption habits impact our CO2 output, and many of us are making conscious, responsible choices to help offset that. However, it’s much harder to stay mindful of the fact that, wherever there’s waste, our carbon footprint grows exponentially.
‘Waste’ can be measured in terms of obvious physical indicators, like excessive non-biodegradable packaging and discarded food, which, after being thrown out, either require energy-hungry, environmentally damaging industrial processes to break down, or worse, pollute and hurt surrounding ecosystems.
There are also less tangible ways in which our carbon footprint significantly grows, such as the fuel consumed in the vast distances many products travel to reach us after—or even before—we buy them.
Many products and processes we use daily have surprisingly heavy carbon footprints. For example, a single large latte generates the same amount of environmental CO2 as posting 11 letters in the mail. Producing and selling 36 cheeseburgers creates an equivalent carbon footprint to running a low-energy light bulb for an entire year.
(In fact, American Forests’ Global ReLeaf Campaign is planting trees for people sharing more of these everyday comparisons through their Carbonizer online app. Take a minute to compare the carbon footprints of some of your other daily products and services and plant some trees while you’re at it.)
To help us tackle waste and offset our day-to-day CO2 emissions, here are accessible tips for staying carbon responsible in three key areas: in our homes, while getting around, and while shopping.
In our homes
1. Ditch electronic and appliance ‘idling.’
At home, we’re all guilty of leaving electrical items on standby for hours on end. This is as true for widescreen TVs as it is for stereos, phones, computers, and tablets. Nearly all electronics have ‘sleep’ or ‘idle’ modes, none of which are particularly great for the environment (or the product) if used too often or for extended periods.
A 2007 report by The Guardian found that the ‘idle’ function on most appliances actually uses up to 90 percent of the normal running power, and that 8 percent of the total electricity used in our homes comes from appliances left on standby. That looks like far more energy waste than the ten seconds it takes to switch them off completely.
2. Optimise your water and HVAC settings.
Lowering your home’s heating and water settings—even by a surprisingly small amount—significantly reduces household energy usage and annual bills. Estimates average about 8 percent savings for each degree you crank it down.
3. Get savvy with energy efficiency.
Knowing which items in your home consume the most energy, and how to maximise their efficiency, can also have a dramatic effect on reducing energy waste and offsetting our carbon footprint.
Kettles should be filled with exactly the amount of water you’re about to use, for example, and not boiled from full each time. In energy efficiency terms, however, many household appliances should be used only when full; washing machines, dishwashers, and refrigerators work far more economically at capacity than when half empty.
Older or lower-rated appliances often consume up to twice the power of modern low-energy variants. This chart shows how an ‘A’-rated refrigerator produces double the annual CO2 of an ‘A++’-rated model, while an energy-saving bulb yields less than 20 percent of the CO2 output of a standard bulb over an entire year.
This means the additional initial cost of installing long-lasting, low-energy bulbs actually pays you back with interest in under 12 months.
While getting around
4. Use the bike, bus, or train.
The most effective way to reduce our carbon footprint over the many short journeys we make everyday is to leave the car at home and get on a bike.
If cycling to work or to your other activities isn’t something you can easily do, however, catch the bus or the train instead. Energy conservation studies estimate that public transport use by a solo commuter switching from a private vehicle can reduce CO2 emissions by 20 pounds daily (over 4,800 pounds yearly).
All told, public transport in the U.S. alone saves 37 million metric tons of CO2 annually, and the net cost per person is significantly lower than that of running a car.
In carbon terms, the rewards of taking public transport are twofold: apart from drastically lowering individual levels of fuel consumption and environmental impact, mass transit systems also greatly reduce traffic for those stuck behind the wheel.
5. Choose roads less travelled.
One of the main factors of driving’s massive carbon footprint is the amount of time spent speeding up, slowing down, or spent stationary en route. Queuing at intersections, idling at traffic lights, hard acceleration, and late breaking all greatly increase fuel consumption against a trip of equal length driven at a steady pace.
So if riding the bus isn’t feasible for you, keep your carbon emissions down while driving or while in a taxi by taking a less busy route over a shorter but more congested one.
6. Care for your vehicle.
Keeping vehicles properly maintained saves on fuel use and carbon output. Book regular checks to ensure your tyres are properly inflated, your engine is well-tuned, and that you’re not cycling old, dirty oil; these habits reduce your emissions and save you money on fuel and maintenance bills throughout the course of a year.
7. Share your ride.
Consider carpooling whenever practical. If you know that some family members or friends are traveling similar routes to the same destination, be it for work, errands, or socialising, you can offset multiple carbon footprints at once by ridesharing.
8. Buy local, in-season, and organic food, and mind the packaging.
We know to avoid obvious items like disposable tableware or groceries that come with too much non-recyclable or wasteful packaging, but how many of us still regularly buy bottled water, or just accept that electriconics and appliances always come entombed in a dozen layers of cardboard, plastic, and polystyrene?
Food shopping is one of the easiest areas to quickly make huge reductions in your carbon footprint. The local farmers’ market or independent grocery won’t stock items flown in from other countries out of season. They’ll also let you buy in quantities according to your needs, resulting in less food waste.
Furthermore, local markets and shops are less likely to overpackage the wide variety of seasonal, organic produce and goods they have on offer, and they’re generally found near population centers among many other small stores, as opposed to standing alone in a giant parking lot off a freeway.
This means you can walk right up the street with your own reusable bag, and complete several errands in one short, car-free trip.
9. Eat more plants and less meat.
Eating vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based—if not completely, then most of the time, and if not most of the time, then at least once a week—also helps volumes in reducing carbon emissions.
A diet of vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, nuts, legumes, and pulses nets lower carbon emissions than a diet big on meat, poultry, fish, and dairy, so if you’re concerned about your personal environmental impact, factor this into your food and grocery shopping behavior as well.
10. Don’t touch the bottled water.
It takes three litres of water to make the packaging for a single litre of bottled water, and over 1,000 years to biodegrade said packaging. Over 80 percent of all single-use water bottles in the U.S. become waste, 10 percent of which ends up in the ocean.
Needless to say, you should avoid bottled water at all costs. If your tapwater at home is safe to drink, drink it. If you feel better with filtered water, there are dozens of options for filtering water quickly and easily at home. Carry a refillable canteen and enjoy cheap, low-carbon hydration all day long.
11. Purchase consciously: reuse, reduce, recycle, and buy secondhand whenever possible.
Remember the three Rs of carbon-friendly consuming: reduce, reuse, and recycle. We need to be more discerning about when we actually need new stuff, and more responsible about where it comes from.
The clothing industry, for example, has a huge carbon footprint, owing as much to our unnecessary consumer waste (UK shoppers each buy around 20 to 30 kilos of new clothes per year, on average) as it does to the huge quantities of greenhouse gas produced in the manufacture of wool and cotton fabrics.
Sure, you gave last year’s t-shirts to a charity store, but when was the last time you bought anything from there? Of the roughly 0.8 tonnes of CO2 per person that our clothing contributes annually, we’d save 0.3 tonnes by simply buying 50 percent secondhand.
Speaking of reusing, the paper industry also has a lot to answer for in terms of environmental impact—we can each offset up to 0.2 tonnes of CO2 a year by switching to recycled-only newspapers, copier paper, and toilet rolls, buying pre-owned books, and blocking all non-electronic mailouts, bills, and bank statements.
Getting to work on shrinking your carbon footprint
If you’d like to invest more time and effort in the cause, there are fantastic resources online for various carbon reduction measures, like how to recycle ‘grey water’ from the laundry into your toilet cistern, build a small organic vegetable garden, or repurpose old furniture and other household materials.
There’s plenty of little things we can do that quickly add up in reducing our waste, mitigating our carbon footprint, and safeguarding the future of our planet—all we need is some imagination, an understanding of the situation, and a genuine desire to make a difference.