Happy Earth Day!
Today’s holiday is observed in support of environmental protection in a very broad sense, but it’s also a good reminder to reflect on your own relationship with the earth, and the resources it provides you to live a happy and healthy life.
Whether or not you would call yourself an environmentalist, it’s really in your best interest to be responsible and forward-thinking about the resources you need to survive on this planet as you know it–clean air and water, topsoil, petroleum. So often we take these things for granted, or are completely unaware of what we use. (For those who have always known a life of plenty, it can be hard to imagine that the resources we depend on will not always be available in such excess–and that they have a finite limit that’s, in some cases, rapidly approaching.)
If you’re curious, this footprint calculator gives an estimate of your environmental impact and shows how many earths it would take to sustain the world’s population if everyone on the planet lived the lifestyle you do. A little scary, but good food for thought!
If you’re uncomfortable with the footprint of your lifestyle, know that there are things you can feasibly change. Environmentalism isn’t just alarmism about climate change or massive efforts to reverse oil spills or even picking up trash in your local park. Everyday environmentalism is the sum of the small things we do, daily, to be more conscious inhabitants of Earth. And when these efforts are added up, they make an impact.
So, in the spirit of treading lightly, here are 21 simple, everyday tips for living an eco-friendly lifestyle:
1. Drive less! Use public transit, walk, or bike when possible. Try not to drive anywhere you can walk to in 30 minutes or less (a great way to get in your 10,000 steps too!). Combine trips to make the times you do drive more efficient.
2. Drive smart. The way you drive your car actually has a sizable impact on your fuel efficiency and the amount of emissions released. Your engine uses the least amount fuel when it’s maintaining a constant speed, and the most when it’s revving. So, use cruise control when possible, and don’t speed up or brake unnecessarily fast. Also, know that fuel efficiency decreases above your car’s optimum speed (55-60 mph)–above this range, the faster you drive, the worse fuel economy you have (see this handy chart).
3. Keep your tires properly inflated. Most car manuals suggest you inflate your tires every time you get gas. In addition to being a safety issue, under-inflated tires decrease your fuel efficiency pretty noticeably. An estimated 80% of Americans drive on under-inflated tires, resulting in the average driver using an additional 144 gallons of gas per year and releasing an extra 1.5 tons of greenhouse gasses.
4. Think before you eat. “We vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what to eat.” That’s an Alice Waters quote, and she’s spot on. Food choices have a huge range of environmental impacts. Here are a few ways to eat eco-consciously:
- When possible, choose organic instead of conventional products (which, needless to say are not really “conventional,” since chemical pesticides have only been around for 50 of agriculture’s 10,000 years). Health impacts aside, the chemical pesticides used in conventional ag are often petroleum based, and are part of a system of agricultural practices that are typically much more resource intensive (heavy machinery running on fossil fuels, petroleum-based fertilizer inputs, etc.) and have more negative environmental impacts (soil erosion and topsoil depletion, pollinator die-off, the Gulf Dead Zone).
- Eat whole foods instead of processed packaged foods. Not only are they better for you, they also don’t involve the resources used in processing and packaging (and marketing, but that’s another story!).
- Buy local and seasonal foods (as available). Less transit time = less fossil fuels burned, greenhouse gases released, etc. If you’re not familiar with local farmers’ markets, CSAs, or food co-ops in your area, Local Harvest has a pretty comprehensive listing.
- Reduce the amount of meat you eat. You don’t have to go full-fledged vegetarian (and, some would argue, that’s not the healthiest option anyway), but be aware of the environmental costs of your meat. Raising animals for meat is an energy-inefficient way to produce food. It takes up to 13 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat (hence, 70% of the grain grown in the U.S. is fed to animals). Not to mention the amount of water used to produce meat (2,400 gallons per pound of beef), or that livestock are responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of tropical deforestation.
5. Reduce your food waste. A full one-third of the food produced in the world is never consumed. In the U.S., that’s 60 million metric tons of wasted food per year. SO much energy goes into growing, harvesting, transporting (and, depending what you’re eating, processing and packaging) food. Don’t waste it!
6. Forgo bottled water. Sure, buy a bottled water when you really need one! But whenever possible, use a reusable bottle and filtered tap water. Also, if you need more convincing–the EPA’s safety standards for tap water are more stringent than the FDA’s standards for bottled water. Just sayin’.
7. Use fewer napkins. You know when you eat out and grab a handful of napkins but then don’t end up using a good portion of them? Try taking just one less napkin than you usually would each time. Same goes for paper towels, etc. The paper you’ll save will add up.
8. Recycle. Yeah, of course! A fundamental eco tip! But we’re not just talking paper in the office, or aluminum cans in the kitchen. Try to recycle as much of what you’re throwing away as possible. Recycle compostable food waste if you’re able to start a compost bin/pile in your yard, or, save your veggie scraps for making homemade vegetable broth. UPS stores recycle packing peanuts. Most dry cleaners take back or recycle wire hangers. Properly recycle electronics (including cell phones!), so they don’t end up in Chinese rivers.
9. Be conscious of your “climate control.” Yeah, we all like to be comfortable, but there are costs to heating and cooling, and sometimes we can go too far with it. In colder climates, heat is a big energy suck but can be combated by insulating well and being strategic about what you’re heating–no need to heat spaces you don’t use. In warmer climates you can strategically use curtains and plants to help with the greenhouse effect and reduce AC use.
10. Turn off and unplug. Switch off electronics when you’re not using them (like your printer, stereo, etc.). Also, know that appliances do use energy even when they’re not on–this “phantom” energy can account for up to 15% of your energy bill. Most new appliances, particularly Energy Star, are designed to use a limited amount of energy when they’re turned off but not unplugged. Still, you’ll save the most energy if you unplug items that you use infrequently enough that it’s not a burden to plug them back in when they’re needed.
11. Turn off the lights. Flip the switch when you leave a room. Easy peasy. Also, somewhat related–turn off fans when you leave the room. Fans are not AC and they don’t cool the ambient temperature when you’re not there. They just make you feel cooler by blowing air over your skin. So when you’re not there, the fan does nothing, and you should turn it off! :)
12. Switch your lightbulbs. Changing to energy-efficient lightbulbs dramatically reduces the amount of energy you use to light your home (and saves you money in the process!). If every household in the U.S. switched just one incandescent bulb to a compact fluorescent, the pollution reduction would be equivalent to removing 1.3 million cars from the road.
13. Take a shorter shower. The average showerhead releases about 2 gallons of water per minute. If everyone in the country reduced their daily shower by just 30 seconds, we would save 260 billion gallons of water annually (plus all the energy used to heat it!).
14. Reduce other non-essential water usage. As California certainly (hopefully?) knows right now, freshwater is finite. Droughts are serious, evaporation is real. The amount of water needed for agriculture is enormous, and food is pretty important…so is a priority use for limited water resources. To conserve water, avoid doing things like watering your lawn at noon during a drought, running the faucet while doing the dishes or brushing your teeth, washing your car overly often, taking multiple showers per day, etc.
15. Choose petroleum alternatives. At current rates of production, BP estimates that we have about 50 years of petroleum left. (Gasp!) Petroleum is incredibly important for life as we know it, from transportation to plastics to medication, like aspirin. In an effort to preserve limited reserves for more essential uses, choose alternatives to petroleum-based products when you can (for example, a wooden or metal basket instead of a plastic one).
16. Reuse. Turn scrap paper into a household notepad. A pretty jar or bottle into a vase. Buy used items from thrift stores or used bookstores when possible. Here are 100 Ideas for How to Reuse Commonly Thrown Away Items–it’s from 1976 but still pretty good!
17. Support companies with sustainable business practices. If you have the option, support B-corps (or small, local businesses!) with stellar environmental stewardship. Companies like Seventh Generation, Method, Patagonia, and Aveda use renewable energy and recycled products, have LEED-certified offices, and drive initiatives to improve environmental efficiency in their supply chains. Corporate accountability can go a long way for influencing environmental outcomes.
18. Use reusable shopping bags. Don’t contribute to the 84 billion plastic bags the U.S. discards every year (which find their way into oceans). If you have a problem forgetting your reusable bags (it happens), keep some in the trunk of your car.
19. Switch to green cleaning supplies. Mainstream household cleaners are chock full of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are considered environmental hazards by the EPA. (And they’re quite unhealthy for you, too.) For greener options, check out this post on Safer Cleaning Supplies.
20. Go paperless! Most banks, credit cards, insurance companies, etc. have an option to switch to paperless billing–you’ll get an email about your bill and pay online, saving paper. Also, you can usually choose e-tickets rather than paper tickets for flights and concerts.
21. Buy recycled paper products. Toilet paper, paper towel, computer paper, paper plates, etc. Post-consumer waste products save new trees from being cut down for these products. That’s super important because 36 football fields of forest are deforested every minute globally, with massive impacts not just on the ecological systems they support, but on carbon sequestration and global climate change.
As WWF explains, “Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change because they act as a carbon sink—soaking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere and contribute to ongoing changes in climate patterns. Deforestation undermines this important carbon sink function. It is estimated that 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation.”
So, try these tips when you can–the important thing is to be aware of what you can do, and to make small and sustainable changes that will add up to a bigger difference over time.
We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.