15 Easy Ways You Can Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

iStock/Zinkevych
iStock/Zinkevych

Imagine a landmass the size of the entire continent of Africa burning as a massive forest fire for an entire year. Such an enormous fire would release nearly 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—the same amount that human activity produces every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2015 numbers. The scale at which we're pumping out CO2 is alarming, and it is all serving to trap heat on the planet and fuel climate change. Fortunately, there are small, easy steps everyone can take to reduce their personal carbon footprint (which you can calculate here).

1. Skip the bacon, egg, and cheese …

Breakfast sandwich on table.
iStock/LauriPatterson

Your breakfast sandwich, while delicious, isn't eco-friendly. Livestock consume a lot of resources and release the greenhouse gas methane into the environment every time they fart—which means animal products come at a high environmental cost. Add the toll that transporting and packaging the ingredients takes on the environment, and the average bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich comes out to about 1441 grams CO2 equivalent (a unit that measures global warming potential). For comparison, driving a car four miles produces about 1650 grams CO2 equivalent. Maybe grab some locally-grown fruit the next time you're looking for a portable morning bite.

2. … and the grass-fed beef.

Cow in pasture.
iStock/VLIET

Grass-fed beef has been embraced by the organic food movement, leading some people to believe it's the better choice for the environment. But a 2017 report released by Oxford's Food Climate Research Network shows this isn't the case: Grass-fed cattle only accounts for 1 gram of protein per person, per day compared to 13 grams from all ruminants, which includes cows, sheep, and goats. Despite this, grass-fed cattle still contribute one-third of all the greenhouse gases produced by ruminants—and the carbon-absorbing pastures they graze in don't do much to offset that. That said, grain-fed, factory-farmed meat isn't much better for the environment, and it comes with a whole different set of concerns, so a better option is to cut meat from your diet where you can.

3. Fly coach.

Plane flying above the clouds.
iStock/den-belitsky

Traveling somewhere by plane is the quickest way to expand your carbon footprint. Just one round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles produces about a fifth of the emissions your car creates in a year. The best option for the environment is to fly less or not at all, but this is unrealistic for some people. An alternative is to book your seats in coach. Because they're allotted less space, and therefore require less fuel, passengers flying economy are linked to three times less emissions than those flying in business class. Look at first class and the difference is even more dramatic: Those flyers account for nine times the carbon emissions of passengers in coach.

4. Shop at second-hand stores.

Browsing at a thrift store.
iStock/lechatnoir

Next time you have a moment alone, check the tags of the clothes you have on. Unless you're a mindful shopper, your wardrobe likely crossed thousands of miles before ending up in your possession. The resources that go into making a single garment also add up: According to a report from Dame Ellen MacArthur's foundation, the fashion industry produces 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Fortunately, there's an alternative to buying clothes from major chains that doesn't involve joining a nudist colony. Next time you need to replenish your closet, head to a second-hand store. Buying gently used clothing is better for the environment, and many thrift stores donate part of the proceeds to charitable causes.

5. Bike.

Biking next to a car on the road.
iStock/DragonImages

It's easy to see how biking can reduce your carbon footprint. While the typical passenger car releases about 404 grams of CO2 per mile, a bicycle emits zero. If you live in a bikeable city or in an area with mild weather year-round, a bike is a worthwhile investment. Even if a bike can't replace your car completely, for shorter trips it's a great way to be gentle on the environment while saving gas money and getting a cardio workout at the same time.

6. Turn down your thermostat.

Hand turning down the thermostat.
iStock/BanksPhotos

Heating your home in the winter is expensive, and it can also be a major contributor to your carbon footprint. Do the planet and your wallet a favor and turn down the thermostat by a degree or two when you're in the house. At night you should turn the heat down even lower, and when you're away you should turn it off altogether. Investing in a smart thermostat that senses when you're in the house and adjusts itself is another way to reduce your carbon emissions.

7. Hang your clothes to dry.

Clothes hanging up on clothesline.
iStock/druvo

If you have the yard space for a clothesline, take advantage of it. According to The Guardian, a household that uses a dryer 200 times a year could shrink its carbon footprint by roughly half a ton of CO2 by air-drying laundry instead. Even if you don't have the option to use a clothesline year-round, avoiding the dryer for just half your loads would make a difference.

8. Unplug the appliances you don't use.

Hand unplugging plug from socket.
iStock/Toa55

Just because an appliance is turned off doesn't mean it isn't consuming energy. According to How Stuff Works, the "phantom energy" zapped up by electronics that stay plugged into an outlet around the clock can account for 10 percent of your electric bill (which, if you factor it out, would be more than a free month's worth of electricity each year). If you can't stand plugging and unplugging every gadget around your home all day, try leaving appliances you don't use on a daily basis, like toasters, desk lamps, etc., unplugged and only power them up when you need them.

9. Reuse where you can.

Cloth bags filled with groceries.
iStock/McIninch

Every piece of waste you toss in the garbage adds to your carbon footprint. You may not be able to bring your trash production down to nothing, but you can reduce it by investing in non-disposable goods that can withstand a bit of wear-and-tear. Reuseable shopping bags, food storage containers, coffee cups, and straws can replace many of the items that are often thrown away every day.

10. Switch out your light bulbs.

Line of light bulbs against wall.
iStock/masterzphotois

If you still use incandescent bulbs to light your home, it's time to make a change. Incandescents use electricity inefficiently, adding money to your electricity bill and your home cooling expenses, thanks to the excess heat they generate. Energy Star-qualified light bulbs like CFLs (compact fluorescents) and LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are more energy-efficient than the average light bulb and last six times as long. If every household in America swapped just one regular light bulb for one of these options, we could reduce CO2 emissions by 9 billion pounds.

11. Carpool.

Man and woman sitting in front seats of a car.
iStock/Zinkevych

For trips where biking isn't an option, see if you can find a friend. Car travel isn't great for the environment, but hitching a ride with someone going the same direction as you makes a much smaller impact than driving alone. Next time you're at work, look around the office for potential carpool buddies. And before your next night out with friends, suggest a system that doesn't involve everyone coming in a separate car.

12. Wash your clothes in cold water.

Adjusting settings on a washing machine.
iStock/spyderskidoo

One way to make your electric laundry machine a little gentler on the environment is to switch on the cold water setting. That simple change can reduce your washer's carbon emissions by 75 percent and save you $60 for every 300 loads of laundry you clean. And for lightly soiled clothing, cold water sanitizes just as well as a warm wash.

13. Use curtains as temperature control.

Woman opening curtains.
iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Curtains aren't just there for privacy—throughout the year, they can help lower your energy consumption. When the sun is hitting the house, keep your windows clear in the winter to take advantage of that free heat source, and close them during peak daylight hours during the summer (especially when you aren't at home). On winter nights, conserve energy by drawing your curtains closed and blocking the heat inside from leaking out, and either open your windows at night for a fresh breeze or close your curtains to keep the air conditioning in during the warmer months. Keep up these habits year-round and you'll see the difference in your heating and cooling bills.

14. Take shorter showers.

Woman washing her hair in the shower.
iStock/skynesher

You don't need to deprive yourself of the pleasure of a hot shower to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle. According to Mother Jones, we would save 20.9 billion pounds of CO2 a year if we all shaved one minute off our shower sessions. If that change sounds easy for you, try taking the five-minute shower challenge for a week or two.

15. Plant a tree.

Parent and child planting a tree.
iStock/max-kegfire

One of the easiest ways to take care of the planet is also the most fun. Set aside an afternoon to plant a tree in your backyard and the benefits will last its whole life. A young tree absorbs roughly 13 pounds of CO2 per year and a mature tree can absorb 48 pounds. After 40 years, a tree will have sequestered 1 ton of carbon that would have otherwise contributed to global warming.

This list first ran in 2018 and was republished in 2019.

An Underpass for Turtles in Wisconsin Is Saving Dozens of the Little Guys’ Lives

Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images
Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images

Why did the turtle cross the road? Because an underground tunnel made it safe to do so.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to construct a tunnel beneath Highway 66, hoping to cut down on high turtle mortality rates, reports Robert Mentzer for Wisconsin Public Radio.

The tunnel, with Jordan Pond on one side and wetlands on the other, was a noble venture, but the turtles had no way of knowing it was a crossing point rather than a dark and potentially dangerous hole. So Pete Zani, herpetologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, installed aluminum flashing outside of each opening, which would reflect the sky and let turtles know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Zani also installed grates above the tunnel to make it less shadowy, and a small cul-de-sac in a nearby piece of the fencing to encourage turtles who had missed the tunnel to turn around.

Zani and his team found that in the first year after construction, 85 percent fewer turtles were killed on the road, and no baby turtles were among the casualties. In the last few years combined, only 40 turtles died, compared to 66 deaths in 2015 alone.

That’s great news for local turtles, of course, and it’s great news for local humans, too. The intersection in question is always busy with truckers, commuters, and families en route to Jordan Pond, and turtle crossing can exacerbate traffic congestion and increase the chance of accidents.

Not all turtles have caught on, however, and it looks like some might never get the memo. Zani found that about 30 percent of snapping turtles and 20 percent of painted turtles make it through the tunnel, and those numbers have been consistent each year since construction. “They either get it or they don’t,” Zani told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Other animals are getting it, too. As part of the experiment, Zani set up a turtle-wrangling program in which students monitored trail cameras for turtle activity outside the underpass. In photos captured by the cameras, they noticed that rodents, mink, skunks, raccoons, and even house cats were traveling by turtle tunnel.

[h/t Wisconsin Public Radio]

Canned Aquafina Water May Be Coming to a Store Near You

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Like boxed cereal and egg cartons, bottled water is one of the most pervasive and familiar examples of consumer packaging around. But PepsiCo, which produces the LIFEWTR and Aquafina water brands, is looking to change that. The company recently announced a new strategy that would reduce its use of plastics and ultimately wean consumers off bottles entirely, turning them on to sipping water from aluminum cans instead.

According to The Takeout, Pepsi says it plans to change how its water is packaged in significant ways begining in 2020. The LIFEWTR brand will use plastic bottles, but the company plans to source those containers from 100 percent rPET, or recycled polyethylene terephthalate. Its bubly sparkling water line, meanwhile, will be sold in cans, rather than in both bottles and cans, as it currently is. So will Aquafina, one of the leading bottled water brands, though it will initially be offered in cans only at food service establishments while the company tests retail preferences. If all goes well, retail consumers will eventually be able to buy Aquafina in cans, too.

Such alterations would make for sweeping changes to the bottled water business, which has exploded in recent years. In 2016, the average American drank 39.3 gallons of packaged water per capita, edging out soda’s 38.5 gallons.

The move to cans stems in large part from consumer habits. Over half of all beer and soda cans are recycled compared to just 31.2 percent of plastic bottles.

PepsiCo expects the changes will result in saving more than 8800 tons of virgin plastic and 12,125 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The company is looking to make all of its packaging recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable by 2025.

[h/t The Takeout]

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