Can YOU Really Impact Climate Change?
Experts say yes. Eliminating food waste, ditching your timed coffeemaker and turning down your thermostat are a few helpful habits that can make a difference
Gigantic strides in controlling climate change occurred recently with the U.S. rejoining the Paris Accord and world leaders reaching a climate change agreement in Scotland. But do you ever wonder what you should be doing to slow or prevent climate change?
Should you use fewer plastic bags, conserve water, get solar panels, eat less meat, get an electric car? Do the things that you do in your daily life actually matter? If so, what is most important?
Your Actions Do Matter
Without question, each of us impacts climate change.
"Two-thirds of global emissions are linked to our private household activities," says Mark Falinski, head of research and sustainability at Finch, a company that evaluates sustainability. "When individuals are armed with the knowledge of their personal impacts, they can cut their personal carbon footprint by roughly fifteen percent."
What Really Makes a Difference?
Much of what we think we should do about climate change is actually wrong. Here's straight talk about what matters:
Limiting food waste tops the list. "If we each eliminated our food waste, we could cut our personal carbon footprints down by as much as eight percent," says Falinksi.
Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) explains, "Ninety-five percent of wasted food ends up in landfills, where it generates methane, a greenhouse gas that is up to eighty-six times more powerful than carbon."
"Two-thirds of global emissions are linked to our private household activities."
Eating less beef matters too (even grass-fed beef).
"If everybody in the U.S. were to cut just a burger a week out of their diet, that would save as much emissions as taking ten million cars off the road every year," points out Bergen.
Meg Pritchard, 57, of Elkins Park, Pa. changed her food habits after her teenage daughter became vocal about food production and consumption issues. "Now I try to buy local or sustainably raised foods — meat in particular, because of the huge impact on the environment," she says. "I'm very conscious of not wasting food and using as much of the item as possible."
Most people assume recycling is crucial, but Mitch Wagener, professor of biology at Western Connecticut State University, warns, "the recycling system for paper and plastic in the U.S. is not working properly at present. Buy as little as possible that requires recycling."
Pace University emeritus professor and author of "Live Sustainably Now: A Low Carbon Vision of the Good Life," Karl S. Coplan says: "A great deal of plastics 'recycling' tends to be shipped overseas or burned or even land-filled. I do not consider it worth the wash water to clean out plastic containers for recycling."
Rinse glass and metal, though, since if they leak onto paper or cardboard, that becomes non-recyclable and goes to the landfill. According to Falinski, rinsing is "actually saving water in the long run. Making new glass, plastic or aluminum containers out of virgin materials requires a lot of water."
If you put a non-recyclable item into the recycling bin, it can contaminate the entire batch and then it all goes to the landfill.
Experts advise recycling glass and metal (after rinsing), paper and cardboard. Only recycle plastic if you are sure it is recycled in your community's program.
Jerry Rosenberg, 70, of Blue Bell, Pa. was inspired to recycle regularly when his eight-year-old grandson Brady entered a contest about recycling.
"He made a video of himself shooting recyclable items through a basketball hoop. He proudly demonstrated to his local community that recycling can be fun," says Rosenberg. "Now, whenever I have something that can be recycled, I think about him and toss the items into the recycling bin like an all-star."
And if you forget your reusable bags while shopping, don't buy another. Get paper or plastic. Falinski explains, "Reusable bags are actually twenty to two hundred times worse for the climate than plastic bags are, so they only become the more sustainable option if you use them a lot of times."
Heating and Cooling
"Heating, cooling, and lighting contribute to more than twenty-five percent of the world's greenhouse gases," advises Falinski. Turning your thermostat down one or two degrees "can cut greenhouse gas emissions from your home by five percent or more. That doesn't seem like a lot, until you realize that it is the same as driving five-hundred fewer miles per year," he says.
Falinski recommends getting a programmable thermostat and avoiding heating or cooling rooms you aren't using.
If you want to take a big step, Falinksi suggests, "installing solar panels can save tens of thousands of dollars on electricity over the lifetime of the panels and can cut down on your carbon."
An easy step everyone can take is using cold water for laundry "since more than eighty percent of the energy from laundry comes from using warm water," says Falinski.
Cars and planes are big issues. "If everyone switched to electric cars, that would be taking over a hundred million gas cars off the road," according to Coplan. "Flying for pleasure is hard to justify given the climate crisis," but he allows for one round-trip flight per year.
Driving is always better for the environment if there is more than one person in the car, even if it's an SUV or low miles-per-gallon vehicle.
Some people buy carbon offsets (which fund projects to reduce carbon emissions) in order to make up for the impact of flights, but Coplan says many don't really create any carbon reduction at all. Effective ones cost "one thousand dollars per passenger to offset through carbon removal."
Appliances and Electronics
You may have heard about "phantom power," when unused electronic devices or appliances (phone charger, can opener) draw power while plugged in. Falinski says 10% of your home electric costs are due to this.
But instead of unplugging everything, turn electronic devices completely off (not in standby mode), use smart plugs that stop electricity flowing to devices and make coffee every morning instead of using a timed coffee maker, which uses six times more energy.
Recently, there was a lot of buzz about plastic straws. Coplan says, "There is no need to grasp at straws! The greenhouse gas emissions of making that tiny bit of plastic are not meaningful."
Falinski says the best choice is no straw at all. "One metal straw has the same carbon footprint as one hundred to one thousand single-use plastic straws," he says. "So, unless you plan on using a metal straw for years to come, it isn't always the best choice."
"We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly."
He also frowns on paper straws. "They are not recyclable, are about three times worse for the climate than plastic straws, and are lined with chemicals that can occasionally leak into your drink," says Falinski.
Take a 'Life Audit' and Make Changes
To make changes, start with "an audit of your life," suggests Wagener.
"Transportation, utilities and diet make up a huge part of your direct footprint. Switching to a renewable energy provider, flying less, switching to an electric car and eating less meat can make a big dent — much bigger than giving up plastic straws, recycling, or shopping for local food," he says.
Other resources include:
- United Nations Act Now app which helps people “learn more about sustainable habits, log their actions, and contribute to the global count,” explains Martina Donlon, climate communications lead at the United Nations.
- Wise Guides from Finch evaluate the sustainability of a wide variety of products
- Podcasts such as “How to Save a Planet,” “Sustainable(ish),” “Think: Sustainability,” and “Yale Climate Connections”
- Books such as “The Upcycle” by Michael Braungart, “Is It Really Green” by Georgina Wilson-Powell and “How Bad Are Bananas” by Mike Berners-Lee
Try to Do Better, But Forgive Yourself
What we each do matters, but according to Wagener, "No one can do enough. This is a five-alarm fire." He compares the situation to World War II. People at home planted Victory Gardens to reduce demand for fruit and vegetables grown commercially. That helped, but the war had to be won internationally.
Falinski warns this is the largest crisis facing humankind. However, he quotes Zero-Waste Chef blogger Anne Marie Bonneau, "We don't need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly."
He recommends "focusing on small, positive actions" and says sometimes you'll forget your reusable tote or won't turn your AC off when you leave home.
"I do too, and sustainability science is literally my job. Instead, take that mistake, channel it into a different small act and inspire those around you to do the same," Falinski says.