Ways to Reduce Your Environmental Impact

By Ella Stern

“…remember that even though you aren’t an elected government official, you still have a voice, and the best way to make lasting change is to use it.”

Climate change: one of the most pressing issues of our time, one that affects the very future our generation will or will not have on this planet. From the largest corporations to each individual, humanity urgently needs to change its ways.

The issue is, there’s a lot of dialogue about the problems, but not as much about how to be part of the solution. Some of the actions that prevent the most emissions (greenhouse gases released into the air) are switching to a renewable energy source, living car-free, avoiding air travel, and being vegetarian or vegan. But what some people don’t know is that there are many smaller, easier steps that also reduce one’s negative impact on the climate.

1. Conserve Energy.

One of the easiest ways to reduce your effect on the climate is to simply turn things off when you’re not using them. This sounds obvious, but think about it: how often do you leave lights on in a room you’ve left? Keep a device on when you’re not using it? Leave the charger in the wall when you unplug a device? Leave the water running? The list goes on. Even if you are coming back soon, there is no reason to leave things on when no one is there. It takes just a second to flip a switch or unplug a charger, which is worth it to help the environment. Similarly, it is good to turn down the heat (in the winter) or air conditioning (in the summer) when you leave the house. Another strategy is setting goals for things that conserve energy, like taking shorter showers. For example, you can try to reduce your shower time by a minute a month in order to decrease the amount of water you use.

While this is important, there are some household appliances that use much more energy than others. One of these is the clothes dryer. One load in the dryer takes the same amount of energy as leaving an LED light on for about 300 hours. Hanging your clothes up to dry instead of putting them in the dryer saves a lot of energy. Even if you only skip the dryer when you have time or when it is warm out, skipping it sometimes is better than not skipping it at all. Additionally, you can save energy by using cold water instead of hot water to wash your clothes. This saves approximately 144 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

2. Compost, Simple Recycle, and Recycle (Correctly!)

41% of the trash that comes from households in my town is food waste. Composting is a solution that reduces the amount of trash that ends up in landfills, gives nutrients to the soil, and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Rather than throwing your food waste in the trash, you put it in the compost bin. It gets turned into soil that can then grow more plants to help the environment. Depending on your composting service, you can sometimes compost things like paper towels and coffee filters as well. My family started composting years ago and it has easily cut our amount of trash in half. 

Another trash-reducing service is simple recycling, which recycles old clothes and household appliances. As Simple Recycling’s website says, without curbside recycling services like this one, 85% of clothes and usable home goods – 20 billion pounds of them – go to landfills rather than getting recycled or donated. And in addition to being good for the environment, in some places, Simple Recycling is free!

I’m sure everyone has heard many times about the importance of recycling. But it is just as important to make sure you’re recycling the correct things. Putting something non-recyclable in the recycling bin is much worse than putting it in the trash (where it should go). It clogs up the recycling machines, can contaminate other items, has to be transported to a landfill, and sometimes requires money to be spent to purchase new machines. Some common recycling mistakes are recycling things like Dunkin’ cups and takeout containers that have a wax finish, and not washing residue off of otherwise recyclable things. Recycling rules change in different places, so it is important to double-check. 

3. Plant Trees.

Another very simple way to help the climate is to plant trees. Many things in this article just reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but trees go a step farther by taking existing carbon dioxide out of the air. They absorb it and store it as they grow. According to this article, “research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere today.” Because of this, some cities have initiated plans to plant a certain number of trees in a certain amount of time. Also, the search engine Ecosia donates its profits to tree-planting: the more searches on Ecosia, the more trees get planted.

Trees aren’t the only plants that absorb carbon dioxide. Garden plants not only take CO2 from the atmosphere, they prevent it from getting there in the first place. Food transportation accounts for about 5% of food emissions. If you grow food in a garden, you won’t have as much need for produce that has been transported a long distance and might have been farmed in a way that was unsafe for the workers.

4. Food

Food makes up 10%-30% of a household’s carbon footprint as well as one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impact of food comes from many factors, like land being cleared for growing, emissions that come from farming, water pollution that comes from farming, water and energy needed to create the final product, emissions from transporting the food and keeping it fresh, single-use packaging, and food waste, among other things. You certainly don’t need to completely cut off your consumption of certain foods, but here are some things to consider.

Red meat, like beef and lamb, is the food with the largest carbon footprint. Beef from dedicated beef herds gives off 60 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of food. Cheese and other dairy products, chocolate, and coffee are some of the other foods that give off the most emissions. Because of this, eating vegan, vegetarian, or no-red-meat is a great way to reduce your impact on the environment, as shown by this infographic. For example, one person switching to a vegan diet reduces 1.5 tons of carbon emissions per year. Additionally, it takes 300 gallons of water per day to produce the food for a vegan diet, as compared to 4,000 gallons per day for a meat-eating diet. However, going vegan can be very difficult for a variety of personal, health, and financial reasons. The good news is that reducing consumption of the foods that are worst for the environment (for example, rarely eating red meat) is still far better for the environment than doing nothing at all.

If you want to learn more, this article dives into the specifics of the things that contribute to the climate impact of food.

5. Shop Sustainably.

Sustainability when shopping can come in the form of avoiding single-use items, shopping second-hand so as to reuse existing items, and not buying more than you need.

Avoiding single-use items, especially plastics, is crucial for the safety of our oceans and their wildlife. The world is currently putting about eight millions tons of plastic into the ocean each year: the equivalent of a garbage truck’s worth of plastic every minute. This has resulted in countless disasters, including animals eating or getting trapped in the plastic, a garbage patch twice as big as Texas, and microplastics finding their way back into the foods we eat. Even though single-use plastic is pervasive in our society, there is good news: there are plenty of alternatives constantly popping up. By definition, the alternatives last longer than single-use plastic, so they pay off in the long run. Investing in a reusable water bottle, bringing cloth bags to the grocery store, packing lunch in reusable sandwich bags and containers rather than plastic and tinfoil, using cloth napkins rather than paper ones, carrying reusable straws or even takeout containers with you when going to get food, and supporting places that recycle and use reusables are all good ways to help.

In the past year or two, thrifting has become more popular, and for good reason. When done in a conscientious way, shopping second-hand and upcycling is better for the environment. “Fast fashion” refers to the ever-changing trends in clothes that cause people to buy trendy things that they only wear for a short period of time. The climate impact of this stacks up quickly. 400 gallons of water are needed to produce a T-shirt, and 1,800 gallons are needed to produce a pair of jeans. 60% of fibers in fabric are synthetics, which come from fossil fuels. 85% of textiles end up in landfills or the incinerator. 20% of industrial water pollution comes from the manufacturing of garments. Therefore, it is best to be mindful of what we buy by trying to purchase used items and not buy more than we need. However, it is important to be aware that shopping second-hand is a necessity, not a choice, for low-income people.

6. Take Action.

Finally, remember that even though you aren’t an elected government official, you still have a voice, and the best way to make lasting change is to use it. For any issue, you can write to your representatives, organizations, companies, places in your community – you name it – to let them know what you think and/or to give them advice on how to improve. Environment-specific ideas include writing to a company or corporation that gives off lots of emissions or uses materials that are damaging to the environment. (You could write to one of the 100 companies that are responsible for a staggering 71% of the world’s carbon emissions. Coca-Cola has been the largest source of plastic pollution in the oceans for multiple years: give it suggestions for plastic-free innovations. Ask your local grocery store to adopt a plastic bag tax. Tell your favorite restaurant and the farms where it gets its food about the importance of reducing food loss and food waste.) You could also research climate legislation that is currently being considered. Then you can write to congresspeople, President Biden’s advisors, or even the President himself to ask that they approve or tweak the legislation so that it is best for the environment and the people.

The effects of climate change are felt unevenly. The people and countries that have the fewest opportunities and resources to be environmentally friendly often get hit with the worst climate disasters. I would argue that, aside from a duty to the future of the planet, those that have a larger effect on climate change (wealthier people and countries) have a larger obligation to help.

There are a lot of climate problems today, and a lot of solutions, too. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of things it seems you are being told to change. Remember that you don’t have to change everything, and especially not all at once. Doing what you can, when you can, as well as speaking up for the planet, is the only way things will get better. It is crucial to do the work now so that the planet is liveable in the future.