The statistics are overwhelming. Scientists continue to study the effects of climate change and the media reports daily on pollution, extinction, and the myriad ways humans are destroying the planet. Given the dismal reality, it can be tempting to throw our hands up and assume we can’t do anything to improve the situation.
But that’s where we’re wrong. While the most dramatic changes will need to take place on corporate and governmental scales, there are a number of ways the average person can make his or her daily routine more eco-friendly, from actions as simple as using smaller plates and as unexpected as shopping online. In fact, a healthy lifestyle and an eco-conscious one often go hand in hand (extra bonus: being eco-friendly is often easier on the wallet).
Some of the most important environmental efforts include conserving energy and reducing water consumption, but here we’ve chosen to focus on some less obvious (but equally significant) habits. What follows is a list of the five biggest, less-talked-about lifestyle changes that will help the environment, with detailed guidance for how to accomplish each one. Read on, and don’t forget to hit the comments section below to let us know how you’re making a positive impact on the planet.
Action One: Scale Back Car Use
In the last few years, Americans have started driving a lot less, turning to alternatives such as walking, biking, and public transportation. While many people make that choice to save money or to get fit, it’s also a great way to reduce the amount of dangerous greenhouse gases (which are responsible for a large chunk of climate change) we release into the environment. One powerful way to minimize the environmental impact of driving is to trade in your clunker for a more eco-friendly vehicle. Another (less costly) option is to use the tips below to drive less every day.
1. Start cycling.
Maybe it’s because of the marketing of snazzy accessories for cyclists, like the invisible bike helmet and gloves that light up with turn signals, but the number of Americans commuting by bike has increased significantly in the last decade or so. That’s a really important development when it comes to protecting the planet, since biking instead of driving can reduce more than 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions Replacing car trips by increasing bike and public transport in the greater Barcelona metropolitan area: a health impact assessment study. Rojas-Rueda, D., de Nazelle, A., Teixido, O., et al. Environment International 2012 Nov 15;49:100-9. The health risks and benefits of cycling in urban environments compared with car use: health impact assessment study. Rojas-Rueda, D., de Nazelle, A., Tainio, M., et al. BMJ 2011 Aug 4;343:d4521.. (Plus, cyclists can save thousands of dollars annually compared to car owners.). New to the roads? Check out this handy-dandy infographic to get biking (safely) in no time.
2. Walk it out.
When it comes to making eco-friendly choices, throwing on a pair of sneaks uses significantly less energy than cruising down the highway. Obviously walking isn’t always a viable choice (think road trips to visit family across the country), but there are some simple ways to sneak more foot action into your daily routine and cut down on carbon emissions from your vehicle. Try walking through the drive-through (idling vehicles are particularly wasteful), parking your car as far away from the store as possible on shopping trips, or walking from store to store if your destinations are close together.
3. Pick public transportation.
True, half an hour squeezed between a crying child and an adult armpit is not always ideal, but perhaps we can find solace in the fact that by giving up the comfort of the driver’s seat, we’re making a substantial contribution to the health of our environment. In fact, a single person who swaps a 20-mile round-trip commute by car to public transportation can reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 4,800 pounds. (That's the equivalent of 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the average two-adult, two-car household.) Plus, it’s the cool thing to do nowadays: Between 1995 and 2012, American public transportation ridership increased by 34 percent. The most energy-efficient modes of travel tend to be train and bus rides, followed by riding alone in a car, and then flying in a plane.
4. Come together.
The only thing better than singing alone in your car is having someone else to ride with and point out that you don’t actually know the right lyrics. Carpooling is another easy way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions—one source estimates that if you join just one other person on a 50-mile round-trip drive to and from work, you’ll reduce your monthly emissions by almost 10 percent. Enlist a coworker or use one of these apps to find a commute buddy and save the environment together.
5. Combine errands.
While the number of Americans cycling and using public transportation may be increasing (see above), not too many report practicing less obvious fuel conservation habits, like combining errands when driving is necessary. But taking one big trip to pick up groceries, drugstore items, and dry cleaning instead of making each a separate adventure is one easy way to cut down on gas emissions. Perhaps surprisingly, taking multiple short trips starting from a cold engine can use twice as much fuel as one longer trip with a warm engine.
6. Shop virtually.
Online shopping: The perfect way to purchase that self-help book we’re too afraid to pick up in Barnes & Noble—and save the planet at the same time. One survey found as many as 70 percent of online shoppers say they prefer to buy from their favorite retailer online. Kudos to them, since buying online almost always involves less energy use and fewer carbon dioxide emissions than in-store shopping.
It’s still unclear whether working from home (an increasingly popular option) always saves more energy than working from an office simply because you don’t have to drive there and back. Some experts say employees use twice as much energy at an office than at home; others say those who work at home make up for it when they spend extra time turning on lights, opening refrigerator doors, running the dishwasher, etc. Another eco-friendly option is to join or create a co-working space, so that telecommuters can confine their energy usage to a single room or building close to home.
8. Record your trips.
Think of it as a travel journal, except you don’t have to go anywhere that requires a passport. Simply keeping a diary of where, when, and how long you’ve driven can help you pinpoint the trips that aren’t exactly necessary (or that could be combined), thereby cutting down on fuel use and gas emissions.
Action Two: Reduce Food Waste
1. Make a plan, Stan.
Most of us know not to hit the supermarket hungry (Five bags of Doritos? Totally necessary.), but tackling the aisles with a list can also prevent us from loading up the cart with items we’re just going to end up throwing away. The best idea is to plan the week’s meals in advance, figure out what ingredients are required for each, and write them all down on a list. As long as you actually stick to the meal plan, there shouldn’t be much food left over!
2. Keep track of the trash.
Start logging a weekly record of every food item you toss in the garbage. That way, you can notice patterns (e.g., every week you throw away half a gallon of spoiled milk) and tweak your shopping habits accordingly. Certain apps can help by letting you know when something in your fridge is about to expire.
3. Donate to food kitchens.
If you haven’t yet tailored your weekly food purchases to your eating habits (see numbers 1 and 2), think twice before trashing all that grub. Unfortunately there are individuals and families in need all over the country who would really appreciate the head of lettuce you were just about to toss. Start by finding a local food bank and asking what kinds of food donations they accept.
4. Understand expiration dates.
It’s important to understand what expiration dates on food products actually mean, so that you don’t end up throwing away a perfectly good loaf of bread. Expiration dates actually refer to the product’s quality, not safety. And there’s a difference between the “sell-by” label (the deadline for retailers to sell the product) and “use-by” (the date when the product starts to lose its quality and flavor.) There are a bunch of techniques you can use to extend the shelf life of everything in your kitchen, like keeping the fridge and freezer cool enough and unpacking groceries as soon as you get home from the store. Disclaimer: We are not advocating that anyone eat curdled yogurt for the sake of saving the environment!
5. Learn to love leftovers.
Few people want to eat the same thing for dinner five nights in a row, but throwing away the remainders of last night’s meal just to avoid boredom isn’t the most eco-friendly option. Instead, try getting creative in the kitchen and experiment with new dishes you can make using whatever’s still hanging around. Or freeze leftovers so you can eat them down the road.
6. Create a compost pile.
Even those who don’t live on a farm or in a house with a backyard can do the eco-friendly thing with their trash. Composting means recycling nutrients back into the ecosystem, which keeps food out of landfills and waterways and enriches the soil. Some communities have local composting programs, so ask around to find out how to get involved with yours. Or start your own compost indoors. (It’s possible to do it in a way that doesn’t stink; we promise.)
7. Take it home.
As restaurant portion sizes get larger and larger, it’s getting harder and harder for some of us to lick our plates clean. Impress fellow dinner guests with how eco-savvy you are and come prepared with a container for taking home whatever you don’t finish. (Otherwise, the restaurant is probably just going to throw away your leftovers.) Bonus: That’s one more meal you don’t have to cook this week.
8. Use a smaller plate.
When dining from a buffet, it can be tempting to load up on absolutely everything, even if we know we can’t reasonably eat it all. Avoid temptation by starting with a smaller plate that fits less food, and trick your brain into thinking you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
Action Three: Use Less Food Packaging
We’ll give you the bad news first: Food packaging makes up almost two thirds of total packaging waste in the United States. (All those cheese stick wrappers and yogurt containers!). That means a whole lot of waste ending up in landfills, which means more methane released into the air. The good news is that many companies are becoming more aware of how much food packaging they use and taking steps to reduce it (edible wrappers, anyone?). Individuals can pitch in too, so check out the tips below to see how you can cut down on your packaging use pronto.
1. Carry your cups.
Given the U.S.’s caffeine obsession, it’s no surprise that the average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups per year. This is an area where we can make a huge difference in the amount of waste we produce just by toting our own travel cup. Bonus: Some stores (even Starbucks!) provide discounts for bringing your own mug.
2. Bulk up.
It’s a goal at the gym, and it should be our mentality when food shopping too. One big bag of rice uses less plastic than five smaller ones, so consider purchasing bulk quantities of foods that last a long time (think pasta, cereal, and nuts). Just be sure to store them properly so they don’t go bad before you can use them.
3. Make it metal.
Bakers, beware: Using a new disposable aluminum tin every time you make a cake is hardly the way to reduce food packaging waste. Instead, consider investing in some metal and ceramic baking pans that you can re-use.
4. Let loose.
Eliminate an easy-to-overlook source of food packaging waste by buying loose tea instead of individual tea bags and investing in some related equipment like a tea infuser. (It’s also worth noting that tea bags are typically stored longer, meaning the nutrients tend to disappear over time.)
5. Go naked.
When shopping, look for products with minimal to no packaging, or at least packaging made from recycled items. That means buying loose fruit and veggies instead of tomatoes wrapped in plastic and cereal that’s housed in just a bag (not a bag and a box). If you do choose packaged products, check the label to see if the packaging was made from recycled materials. And be sure to recycle or reuse (see the next tip) any cardboard, paper, or plastic packaging when you’re done with it.
6. Choose to reuse.
It may be tempting to toss those takeout containers and peanut butter jars, but that plastic and glass can easily be saved and reused for other purposes, like storing all those bulk goods that you stocked up on (or using an empty pickle jar as a way to display photos). Just be sure to check the number on the bottom of the container to make sure it’s safe for reuse with food products, since some plastics can leach toxins when they’re used for too long. (Numbers 2, 4, and 5 are generally safe; numbers 3, 6, and 7 aren't.)
7. Get crafty.
Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than stripping a new product of its packaging and throwing all those Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap in the trash. But these items can easily be reused for some more creative purposes—for instance, bubble wrap can insulate plants from the cold and packaging peanuts can be stashed between blankets for extra warmth on wintery nights. Or just save ’em for the next time you need to ship something.
8. Forego the forks.
If you’re ordering takeout at home, there’s no need to use plastic forks and knives. One of the easiest ways to be more eco-friendly is simply to ask the restaurant not to include napkins, utensils, or condiments with your order.
Action Four: Eat Locally
The definition of “eating local” varies, but it typically involves efforts to consume foods that were produced closer to home and becoming more cognizant of where our food comes from. One of the main benefits of eating locally is reducing the amount of energy it takes to ship food, since right now American food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to table. And food that comes from a local farm or farmer’s market generally uses less packaging than food from a grocery store. Eating locally also means supporting farmers who care about and protect the environment and wildlife. Plus, there’s some evidence that eating foods produced locally may be more nutritious. Eating locally doesn’t have to mean donning a pair of overalls and opening your own farm—check out these tips for making local food a bigger part of your daily diet.
1. Grow a green thumb.
As the price of supermarket produce continues to increase, more and more Americans are taking matters into their own hands and learning to grow their own food. The practice has a number of benefits: Perhaps most significantly, it reduces the use of fossil fuels involved in transporting produce all over the world. Those who grow their food without pesticides and herbicides also save the planet from extra air and water pollution. While cultivating a backyard garden might be ideal, even apartment residents can start by growing herbs on a windowsill and creating a compost pile.
2. Make it to the market.
Skip the produce aisle at the supermarket and instead visit your local farmer’s market for a variety of locally grown foods. Don’t have time to browse? Consider getting together a group of friends or coworkers and signing up for an online farmer’s market—you can choose the fruits and veggies you want and see where exactly they’re coming from.
3. Join the community.
Community Supported Agriculture is a great way to bring farm-fresh ingredients directly to consumers. Participants sign up for a share, and every week, they pick up a box filled with local, seasonal food from a nearby farm(s). It’s delicious, nutritious, and sustainable, so see if there’s a CSA near you.
4. Dine locally.
No, that doesn’t (just) mean eating at the locally owned coffeeshop around the corner. Part of encouraging local eating is supporting restaurants that serve locally grown food. You can find out more about a restaurant’s practices just by asking the server or by doing your own research.
5. Get into gardening.
If starting your own windowsill herb garden seems intimidating, find some support by joining a community garden, where everyone works together to cultivate fresh produce and keep the neighborhood green. Visit this site to find one near you.
6. Savor the season.
One of the easiest (and tastiest) ways to eat locally is simply to eat the fruits and veggies currently in season where you live. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint by minimizing the distance the produce has to travel to get to your plate.
7. Make preservation your jam.
Here’s one tip that surprised us: It’s possible to freeze certain fruits and veggies for up to a year and a half! The key is to freeze them when they’re at their freshest. You can also learn to can fresh produce or turn it into jams and pickles. Here’s to berry oatmeal to brighten up frigid winter mornings!
8. Start small.
As with any health habit, it’s best to set one realistic goal related to local eating instead of overhauling your whole diet. Think about five foods you currently consume (anything from apples to eggs) that you can buy locally on your next shopping trip. Eventually that number may expand to include the contents of your whole fridge.
Action Five: Shop With the Environment in Mind
1. Bring your own bag.
Although it might seem convenient to grab a plastic bag at the cash register, the habit is actually pretty wasteful. One source estimates that plastic bags have three times the greenhouse gas impact of reusable bags. Worse, a few years ago scientists discovered a gigantic mass of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean, which is an especial threat to marine life. Make a more eco-friendly choice by bringing your own reusable bags on your next shopping trip—they’re way trendier than the plastic stuff anyway!
2. Clean safely.
There’s little more satisfying than a freshly washed kitchen. But beware the bleach—common household cleaning products are among a number of indoor pollutants that can hurt the environment as well as human health. The next time an urge to get rid of those stovetop stains strikes, consider concocting your own non-toxic cleaning products (that work just as well as the chemical-filled stuff) or doing some research to find the most eco-friendly agents.
3. Be pretty eco-friendly.
Don’t freak, but the FDA doesn’t actually regulate the ingredients in most personal care products (makeup, perfume, lotion, etc.). And many of these products contain chemicals that are potentially dangerous to humans and their environment. Some products also contain palm oil, an important environmental resource that we’re using up too quickly. Before beautifying, take a look at the safety information for some common personal care items. Then choose items with ingredients that are friendlier on your body and the environment (and support the companies who make them).
4. Choose used.
Okay, so there are some things we’d rather not reuse, toothbrushes and underwear among them. But there are many times when it’s possible to save money and the planet by purchasing a used product instead of a brand-new one. Buying used goods means reducing your carbon footprint, since new products are typically shipped across the globe. Plus, used goods typically come with less packaging. We’re fans of used furniture (you just can’t get that antique look at IKEA) and books (who doesn’t love reading the inscriptions on the inside covers?).
5. Say “bye” to the bottle.
Greatist readers already know the importance of proper hydration, but guzzling all that H20 doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment. Each year, 17 million barrels of oil are used in the production of disposable water bottles. Be part of the solution by investing in a water bottle (BPA-free if possible)—and actually remember to carry it with you! Want to go a little further? Take CamelBak’s Ditch Disposable pledge today.
6. Cherish the old stuff.
Toaster on the fritz? Consider trying to repair the problem before running out to purchase a new one. Need a pair of speakers for a party? Think about borrowing the neighbors’ instead of buying your own. In general, try not to label newer as better and make a more eco-friendly choice by using what you already have (or what someone else already has). You’ll reduce the amount of resources (including water and energy) necessary to create new products and the transportation required to ship new goods around the world. And you’ll avoid clogging landfills with mountains of your discarded doodads.
7. Be less energetic.
While we’re not suggesting that anyone rip out their refrigerator and washing machine and go buy replacements, it’s worth noting that modern appliances are significantly more energy-efficient than those manufactured even 10 years ago. When purchasing a new appliance, look for the Energy Star label, consider products that run on natural gas instead of electricity, and avoid buying appliances that are bigger than you need (like oversized air conditioners and refrigerators).
8. Treasure the trees.
Nowadays we’re lucky if we actually remember how to write with pen and paper. But when we do purchase paper products, it’s best to look for labels that indicate an item has been made using sustainable methods, meaning it protects against global warming and the destruction of wildlife. The same thing goes for the purchase of wood products (like furniture)—make sure it’s been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council—and less obvious paper goods, like tissues and toilet paper.
The most important idea to remember is that saving the planet can start right now, with your next trip to the supermarket or commute to work. While it might not seem like parking a few blocks farther from the store will make much of a difference, over time, all these changes add up to a really positive impact on the environment. No effort is too trivial—so pick one of these new habits and take action today!