The term “carbon footprint” may be intended as harmless shorthand to describe our personal impact on climate change. But it’s appropriate in the literal sense: It’s easy to feel like every step we take harms the planet. Driving a car, doing laundry, eating a hamburger, wiping the counter with a paper towel — each exacts an environmental toll.
The result can be a mix of frustration, guilt and bewilderment at how to make a difference.
Fortunately, individuals can play small roles with a big collective impact. You may do many of them already, such as substituting LED lightbulbs for incandescents, rinsing recyclables before discarding them or shopping with reusable grocery bags. If you’re not doing these things, it’s easy to start.
“Add up all the easy and inexpensive things all of us can do like this at home and at work, and we can make a tremendous difference,” says Pat Remick, senior energy communications strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Here are some climate-friendly practices you can incorporate into your daily routine:
If you begin the day with coffee, why not kick off your environmental responsibility then? Multiple actions around this one habit can have an impact. If you brew coffee at home, avoiding pods and K-Cups will save energy and reduce packaging waste. Purchase beans instead, and look for bags with organic and fair-trade labels, both of which certify corporate responsibility in production and manufacturing.
A garden or compost bin is a better depository for your grounds than the trash. If you grab your java on the go, try to steer clear of single-use cups. Some shops, including chains like Starbucks and Peet’s, will be happy to pour your order into your own travel mug — so happy, in fact, that they will give you a small discount to reward your eco-friendly decision. (Many coffee shops have suspended so-called personal cups as a precaution during the pandemic, but check back with your barista in the coming months.)
If you’re suddenly struck by how badly your car needs a wash, do it while you’re out, not in your driveway. Whether you opt for self- or full-service, going to a professional facility will dramatically reduce your water usage. You can save up to 65 gallons per wash based on factors such as car size, water pressure and time spent, according to a 2018 study by the International Carwash Association.
In addition, many car washes are equipped to recycle water, further reducing usage. Going pro can also prevent water pollution. At home, all the soap, dirt and oil that gets sprayed from your car can flow into storm drains and make their way into nearby bodies of water. Car washes can capture that runoff and, if not recycle it, direct it to water treatment plants where it can be purified before returning to nature.
You’ve had your coffee, your car is washed, and you just need a few things from the grocery store. Before you grab a cart, take a moment to understand “use by” and “sell by” dates. Doing so will not only save you money and concerns about spoiled food, it will lead to less waste.
Discarded food ends up in landfills, where it generates high levels of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas and a big contributor to climate change. Throwing away less food is an easy habit to adopt, and it can start with being less rigid about those package dates.
“Sell by” is intended for retailers, indicating when to remove items from shelves and restock. It does not imply that the product is no longer safe for consumption. If a sell-by date is the only date on a package, judge the product’s appearance and odor to determine the right time to throw it away.
“Use by” and “best if used by” dates reflect quality rather than safety, and most items are still perfectly fine to use for at least a couple of days past these dates. Again, your eyes and nose are reliable indicators. If the food looks normal, hasn’t become discolored and doesn’t smell different, it should be fine. There are plenty of online resources that offer further guidance, including the “Food Facts” brochure put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
At home, you can take countless other actions. Consider running the washing machine with cold water; streaming movies and TV shows through a smart TV or an add-on device instead of a gaming console; and eliminating unwanted mail through websites such as OptOutPrescreen.com, DMAChoice.org and CatalogChoice.org. There is no shortage of suggestions online for ways you can do your part, and our individual efforts really do help.
Beyond individual efforts, measurable strides are being taken across the economy. The power sector, for example, has made significant progress, and the costs associated with clean energy are falling, says the NRDC’s Remick.
Other areas, however, are moving in the wrong direction. “Natural gas and oil infrastructure are expanding,” Remick warns. “This threatens to undermine climate progress in the U.S. by locking in the use of climate-warming fossil fuels. We need to make serious investments to decarbonize our vehicles, buildings and industry.”
Much of that work needs to be taken on by governments and corporations, but we have a role to play, too.