Read the news on any given day, and you’d think we were all soon-to-be goners from climate change. New stories and reports regularly reveal all the ways humans are trashing the planet at an unprecedented rate.
Given the seemingly dismal reality, we might be tempted to throw up our hands and say there’s nothing we can do to fix the problem. But defeatism won’t get us anywhere.
Governments and corporations need to step in, but they shouldn’t bear all the responsibility for making a positive environmental impact. People from all walks of life can do things each day to reduce their carbon footprint and make their routine more eco-friendly.
Becoming an environmental warrior doesn’t require a superhero-like effort. Something as simple as creating a grocery shopping list or using ceramic baking pans can make a big difference.
The most obvious ways to help the environment are to conserve energy and use less water. But if you put on your green thinking cap, you can come up with lots of less obvious, but no less important, earth-friendly habits.
Need a jump start? Read on to learn a few simple day-to-day strategies to help the environment. You might be surprised at how much they help you in the process.
Some Americans have swapped out their cars for eco-friendly modes of transport like walking, biking, and public transportation for good reason.
Along with helping to save money and improve fitness, leaving the car in the garage also reduces 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. For other (less costly) options, try these tips to get you where you need to go.
1. Bike to work
Despite snazzy cycling accessories like the invisible bike helmet and gloves with light-up turn signals, fewer Americans are riding their bikes to work.
If more people commuted on two wheels instead of four, experts estimate we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent by 2050.
One study found that half of all car trips were less than 3 miles. Given the short distance, cycling or walking could easily substitute for 41 percent of these trips, saving nearly 5 percent in carbon emissions.
2. Walk it off
Motoring on two feet is a lot more energy-efficient than cruising on four wheels. Walking obviously isn’t a viable choice if you’re headed to see family across the country, but as long as you stay local, you can sneak more foot action into your daily routine and cut down on carbon emissions in the process.
3. Go public
The thought of squishing into a crowded train car might be a big turnoff to some would-be commuters, but think of all the upsides. Riding the rails creates extra time to catch up on emails, read a juicy novel, or get just a little more shut-eye. Plus it does wonders for the health of our planet.
Switching to the subway or metro cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 76 percent per passenger mile compared to driving your own car. Taking the bus drops emissions by 33 percent per passenger mile over commuting solo.
4. Come together
Sharing a ride with a coworker takes one car, and its carbon dioxide emissions, off the road. Every gallon of gas that commute buddy doesn’t burn by driving themselves saves about 20 pounds of CO2.
Added bonus: The more people who jump on the carpooling bandwagon, the less miserable rush hour might eventually become. Call in a coworker or use an app like Carma to partner up and save the environment together.
5. Make it a twofer
Each time car ride to the supermarket, dry cleaner, or drugstore burns fuel. Short trips are especially hard on fuel economy, because that cold engine needs time to warm up with each stop. Doubling up on errands saves fuel, driving time, and emissions.
6. Shop virtually
Ditch the car entirely and shop in the virtual world. Online shopping is easy, and currently safer than shopping in stores.
It can lessen your carbon footprint but only if you avoid rushed shipping, buy more items together to minimize shipments, and support brands with eco packaging etc.
Speaking of PJs, they’re the new suit and tie for anyone who works from home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average daily commute time is nearly 27 minutes.
Companies don’t even need to take their full operations remote. Just switching from a 5-day work week with 8-hour days to a 4-day work week with 10-hour days trims fuel use and emissions by 20 percent.
8. Share a car
Why invest the money to buy a car, with all the maintenance and upkeep that goes with it? Car sharing services like Turo, Getaround, and Zipcar let drivers pick up a vehicle when they need it, and drop it back off when they’re done.
Depending on their budget, drivers can rent a thrifty Ford all the way up to an exotic Ferrari. Car sharing cuts energy consumption by up to 47 percent, and CO2 emissions by up to 65 percent, especially when the cars are hybrid or electric.
Everyone talks about how much food we eat, but what about the food we don’t eat? Americans toss out 133 billion pounds of food each year. That means about 40 percent of our food supply goes straight into the trash.
If people around the world saved just one quarter of the food they now waste, we could end global hunger.
Wasting food also squanders the resources (like water and energy) that went into the production of that food. Here are some easy ways to shop and eat more efficiently to waste less food.
9. Make a plan, Stan
The golden rule of grocery shopping is to never hit the supermarket hangry (just try resisting the checkout lane snacks and candy with a grumbling tummy). Tackling the aisles armed with a planned list can avoid a cart overloaded with items that will ultimately end up in the trash.
Plan out the whole week’s meals in advance. Figure out what ingredients each recipe requires, and write them all down. As long as you actually stick to the meal plan, there shouldn’t be much food left over!
To make meal planning and shopping real no-brainers, buy meal kits like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron. Ingredients are pre-portioned so nothing goes to waste.
10. Keep track of trash
Want to know how much you waste? Start logging a weekly record of every moldy banana and half-eaten box of cereal you toss in the trash. Over time, you can start to see patterns, and tweak your shopping habits accordingly.
Also keep track of what’s going bad in the fridge. Some apps warn when that leftover cantaloupe or jar of tomato sauce on the middle shelf is about to turn. They’ll help you avoid unwrapping a scary science experiment!
11. Find your local food kitchen
If you’re still buying more than you can eat, consider another possibility before trashing that still-good grub. Lots of people in need would really appreciate the bag of bagels you were just about to discard.
Find a local food bank and ask what kinds of food donations they accept.
12. Understand expiration dates
We don’t recommend anyone eat curdled yogurt for the sake of saving the environment, but if you’re tossing bread and OJ as soon as they hit the sell-by date, you could be wasting a lot of perfectly good grub.
Food expiration dates actually refer to the product’s quality, not its safety. And there’s a difference between “sell-by” (the deadline for retailers to sell the product) and “use-by” (the date when the product starts to lose its quality and flavor.)
A bunch of techniques can help extend the shelf life of everything in the kitchen. One is to keep the fridge and freezer cool enough — 40°F (4°C) and 0°F (-18°C), respectively — and unpack groceries as soon as you get home from the store.
13. Learn to love leftovers
Who wants to eat the same lasagna 5 nights straight? Still, throwing away leftovers just to avoid boredom isn’t the most eco-friendly option. Instead, breathe new life into those old meals.
Experiment by making new dishes with whatever’s still hanging around. Roast turkey easily transforms into next-day turkey sandwiches, chili, or tetrazzini.
Or, freeze leftovers and eat them down the road. Soups and stews can stay on ice for up to 6 months, and leftover meat and poultry can keep them company in the freezer for just as long.
14. Create a compost pile
You don’t need to live on a farm, or even have a big backyard to try this eco-friendly disposal method. Composting means recycling nutrients back into the ecosystem, which keeps food out of landfills and waterways while making the garden greener.
Some communities have local composting programs. Or, start your own compost indoors. (Worms are optional; we promise.)
15. Take it home
As restaurant portions swell to epic sizes it’s getting harder and harder for some of us to lick our plates clean. Order an appetizer instead of an entree and save the planet, plus some calories in the process.
Or, impress your dining companions with your eco-savviness by coming prepared with a reusable container to take home whatever you don’t finish.
Bonus: That’s one more meal you don’t have to cook this week.
16. Use a smaller plate
Buffets are notorious traps for anyone whose eyes are bigger than their stomach. It can be tempting to load up on everything from soup to chocolate layer cake, even though eating that giant pile of food would be like climbing an edible Mount Everest.
Avoid temptation by starting with a smaller plate. The full plate will trick your brain into thinking you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
Disposable plates, plastic forks, and ketchup packets are small, but they add up. Food packaging and containers create 39 million tons of waste annually — nearly one quarter of solid waste produced in the United States.
A whole lot of those containers end up in landfills, where they release more methane 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.
Check out the tips below to see how you can cut down on your packaging use pronto.
17. Carry your cups
As just one example, coffee behemoth Starbucks blows through 8,000 paper cups a minute, which adds up to more than 4 billion cups a year (and one major buzz!).
Here’s where toting a travel cup can make a big difference. Starbucks and some other coffee retailers will give you a discount if you BYO mug.
18. Bulk up
Bulk isn’t just a mantra for muscleheads. Buying in bulk buffs up the environment, too.
Consider purchasing non-perishable foods (think pasta, cereal, and nuts) in large quantities. One big bag of rice or pasta uses less plastic than five smaller ones. Just be sure to seal them up well, so they don’t go bad before you can use them.
19. Make it with metal
Cooks, beware: Using a new disposable aluminum tin every time you bake a cake or roast a chicken creates a distasteful amount of waste. Instead, consider investing in some metal and ceramic baking pans that you can re-use.
20. Let loose
Eliminate an easy-to-overlook source of food packaging waste by buying loose tea instead of individual tea bags and making a one-time investment in a tea infuser.
Beyond its eco-friendliness, loose tea is fresher and better for you. Tea bags stored for too long lose their nutrients.
21. Go naked
Buying fruits and veggies is a smart move for your health. Wrapping each red pepper and head of broccoli in its own plastic bag? Eh, not so much.
Experts estimate it may take as long as 1,000 years for the average plastic bag to break down. When turtles and other sea critters get their fins on these bags, they sometimes mistake them for food, with fatal results.
Buy fruit and veggies loose or use a disposable bag from home. Try to buy other foods with minimal packaging (like 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.
22. Recycle, reuse
It may be tempting to toss every juice bottle and peanut butter jar, but you can easily repurpose plastic and glass.
Think of them as free containers to plant seeds in, store the rice, nuts, and other bulk goods you stocked up on, or to hoard all the extra pennies you saved by recycling.
23. 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 (after you’ve popped all the bubbles, of course). But these items can easily be reused with a little creativity.
For instance, bubble wrap can insulate plants from the cold and packing peanuts can be stashed between blankets for extra warmth on wintery nights (unless you’ve got kid or pets, then that would be a choking hazard!).
You could also just save ’em for the next time you need to ship something.
24. Forego the forks
If you’re ordering takeout at home, there’s no need to get plastic forks and knives. Use your own silverware. Also ask the restaurant to skip the napkins, utensils, or condiments with your order.
Every stage of the food production process, from packaging to shipping, uses energy. And certain foods leave a bigger carbon footprint than others. Check out these tips for eating in a more environmentally friendly way.
25. Grow a green thumb
More and more Americans have taken eating into their own hands by growing their own food. An estimated 1 in 3 U.S. households are flexing their green thumbs.
The practice has a number of benefits: For one thing, it saves on the other kind of green. And people who grow their food without pesticides and herbicides spare the planet from at least some air and water pollution.
While cultivating a backyard garden might be ideal, even apartment dwellers can grow herbs on a windowsill or tomatoes in an indoor planter.
26. Go green
Cattle use up the most land and produce more greenhouse gases than other animals raised for food. That’s why the most eco-friendly diet is meat-free, or at least beef-free.
Producing 2 pounds (the equivalent of 4 jumbo-sized fast-food burgers) of beef releases 132 pounds of greenhouse gasses. The same amount of peas? Just 2 pounds of greenhouse gasses.
27. Join the community
Get in on the farming lifestyle, no overalls or tractors required! Community supported agriculture brings farm-fresh ingredients directly to consumers.
Participants sign up for a share. Every week, they pick up a box filled with local, seasonal food from nearby farms. It’s delicious, nutritious, and sustainable. See if there’s a CSA near you.
28. Avoid high-flying foods
Some foods spoil so fast that they wouldn’t survive a long-distance truck or boat trip; they have to be air-shipped to stores. That first-class treatment comes at a cost. Flying foods produces 50 times more CO2 emissions than sending them by boat.
Try to avoid foods that are often air-freighted, like asparagus, green beans, and berries. Unless, of course, they grow in your neck of the country.
29. Switch protein sources
Some foods eat up more land and resources than others. In general, meat, dairy, eggs, and fish have a bigger environmental footprint than do plant based foods.
30. Eat organic
The cost of organic food: 47 percent higher than conventional food.
31. Make preservation your jam
Here’s one surprising tidbit: Home frozen fruits and veggies stay good for up to a year and a half. The key is to freeze produce at the peak of freshness. Blueberry-topped oatmeal in January? Yes, please!
Freezing isn’t the only way to save fruit and veggies. Turn them into jams, or freeze-dry or pickle them.
32. Start small
Overhauling an entire diet at once is a recipe for failure. A much more realistic approach is to set small goals. Swap out vegetables for meat one meal a week, or make a small percentage of your produce purchases organic. Build from there.
That iPhone and big screen TV didn’t just pop up in your house. They required a whole manufacturing, packaging, and distribution chain, each of which had an impact on the environment.
Buying green means keeping the environment in mind with every shopping excursion, whether it’s browsing the mall or scrolling through Amazon.
Shopping greener is all about the little things, like checking for labels that say “recycled” or hunting the thrift shop like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis when buying a coat.
33. Bring your own bag
Grabbing a plastic bag at the register is convenient, sure. But bringing reusable bags from home has a much smaller environmental impact.
By the year 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from all those plastic products could exceed 56 gigatons. For a little perspective, that equals the emissions from 615 coal plants.
34. Clean safely
Though there’s something satisfying about a freshly scrubbed kitchen or bathroom, beware the bleach. Some seemingly benign household cleaners secretly harbor indoor pollutants that can harm the environment — and your health.
The next time the urge to mop and dust strikes, consider concocting your own safer cleaning products. Many of them work just as well as the chemical-filled stuff. Or, do a little digging online to find the safest products.
35. Be pretty eco-friendly
Even the perfect shade of lipstick can hide some very questionable ingredients. And because the FDA doesn’t require approval of most personal care products (makeup, perfume, lotion, etc.), you have to do your own cosmetic sleuthing.
Before diving into your daily beauty regimen, take a look at the safety information for the products you use. Then buy alternatives with ingredients that are friendlier on your body and the environment.
36. Don’t mind a little wear
Okay, so there are some things we’d rather not buy used, toothbrushes and underwear among them. But often it’s possible to save money and the planet by purchasing a used product instead of a brand-new one.
Used goods reduce your carbon footprint, since new products are typically shipped across the globe. Plus, they 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?).
37. Say “bye” to the bottle
Greatist readers already know the importance of proper hydration, but getting your H2O fix doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment. Americans toss out 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.
The bottle that started out in your spin class will likely end up in a landfill or the ocean. Be part of the solution by investing in a reusable water bottle (BPA-free if possible) — and actually remember to carry it with you!
38. Cherish the old stuff
Toaster on the fritz? Try to fix it before running out to purchase a new one. Need a pair of speakers for a party? Borrow the neighbor instead of buying your own.
Newer isn’t always better. Using what you already have (or what someone else already has) reduces the amount of resources (like water and energy) needed to create and ship new products. Reusing is friendlier to the environment, and your wallet.
39. Be more energy efficient
While we’re not suggesting that anyone toss their washing machine and revert to the washboard, an upgrade may be in order. 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).
40. Treasure the trees
Each year, Americans clean up countertops with, blow into, and flush more than 15 billion pounds of paper towels, tissues, and toilet paper.
When buying wood products like furniture, think sustainability and minimal environmental impact. One easy way is to buy products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which means they come from responsibly managed forests.
Saving the planet seems like an impossible task. But if everyone does just a little bit, bringing their own bags to the store or walking to work, over time, these small changes will add up to a big impact on the environment.
No effort is too trivial — so pick one of these new habits and take action today!