10 Life Changes That Will Actually Make A Difference For The Environment

On Earth Day, experts suggest some of the best ways you can help the planet and combat climate change.

It’s easy to feel a sense of powerlessness when it comes to the environment.

The risk of wildfires all over the world is only growing, in part because of man-made climate change. We just lived through the hottest decade on record.

Meanwhile, billions of particles of plastic waste choke up our oceans, lakes, and rivers. In tiny microplastic form, the waste piles up on land and ends up in animal bodies ― including our own.

While reforms need to be made at the federal, state and local government levels, our individual actions ― at least in the aggregate (tell your friends to do these things, too!) ― can make a difference. We asked environmentalists and climate change activists to share a few ways that each of us can reduce our carbon footprint and combat climate change.

Here are 10 useful suggestions:

1. Cut back on air travel — entirely if you can.

The idea of curbing your air travel, if not giving it up outright, was brought into the spotlight when Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg refused to fly to speaking engagements. In 2019, she traveled to events around Europe mainly by train and sailed from the U.S. to Portugal to attend the United Nations climate meeting in Madrid.

Critics of air travel usually point to the environmental damage done by international air travel, but domestic flights aren’t much better. As The New York Times reported recently, take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve contributed about 20% of the greenhouse gases that the typical car emits over the span of an entire year.

So when reducing air travel, don’t forget the domestic flights you likely take with more frequency ― a wedding here, an industry conference there.

“The antidote to air travel is to choose adventures closer to home, exploring your own state, arriving at destinations by train, bus or the family car,” said Erin Rhoads of The Rogue Ginger, one of Australia’s popular eco-lifestyle websites.

“The other benefits of this are learning the history about the country you are on in greater depth, supporting local towns off the beaten track, discovering hidden gems and creating new memories all while saving money,” she added.

For unavoidable flights, consider purchasing carbon offsets through airlines, online travel bookers and independent sellers like Terrapass. With your purchase, you fund environmental projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thus, in theory, reducing your personal carbon footprint.

Traveling by train is a more environmentally sound way to travel.
freemixer via Getty Images
Traveling by train is a more environmentally sound way to travel.

2. Avoid all single-use disposable plastic items.

Plastics help protect and preserve goods while reducing weight in transportation ― but the benefits pretty much end there. Plastics originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases from creation to disposal, according to a May 2019 report, “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” released by the Center for International Environment.

Recycling plastic alone won’t cut it; you have to stop buying it, too. Avoid single-use disposable plastic as much as you can, said Jay Sinha, the co-founder of the online store Life Without Plastic.

“Do a little personal plastic audit of your current plastic use and assess where you’re at,” he said. “Buy in bulk rather than purchasing packaged foods. Eliminate your takeout plastic waste by carrying your own non-plastic mug, water bottle, utensils, straw, food container, reusable bag. Try living a zero-waste lifestyle ― new zero-waste bulk stores are popping up all over to help you out.”

3. Eat local and go vegetarian or vegan.

There’s no way around it: A meat-heavy diet is not great for the environment. The production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times the fossil fuel input needed for a calorie of plant protein. Then, there’s the carbon footprint of the refrigeration required to extend the longevity of foods when they’re being shipped, the transportation of goods to and from airports, and the packaging, Rhoads said.

Minor tweaks to your diet can make a huge impact ― if more of us do it.

“Select vegetables and fruit grown locally in your country by visiting farmers markets, signing up to a CSA [community-supported agriculture] box or asking your local supermarket to stock local fruit and vegetables, preferably without the packaging,” she said. “Increasing your local protein staples from plants like beans and legumes grown in your state or country is the most sustainable diet choice, and your health and the planets will be better for it.”

Buy local as much as possible and keep your diet veggie-based.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Buy local as much as possible and keep your diet veggie-based.

4. Cancel your Amazon Prime subscription and cut back on online purchases overall.

This one might be a bit of a challenge for those of us who’ve gotten used to quick-and-easy Amazon buys. But that overnight or two-day delivery speediness comes at an enormous cost to the environment.

“If a FedEx Priority Overnight truck is dispatched to your suburban neighborhood just to bring you the socks you ordered ― even though you could have waited for [slower] ground delivery or bought them somewhere locally while buying other things ― that’s a significant greenhouse gas emissions tab you are creating unnecessarily,” Sinha said.

Gay Brown, a personal environmental health adviser and author of “Living With a Green Heart: How to Keep Your Body, Your Home, and the Planet Healthy in a Toxic World,” put it even more simply.

“Every time you order something, it has to be pulled by a human, boxed, wrapped, shipped, flown, or trucked, and delivered by more humans. Each of these people have to have used public or private transportation to get [to] their jobs and are using more transportation to get to you,” she said.

The domino effect from your selecting two-day delivery is huge, so if at all possible, buy those socks locally.

5. Ditch the car.

The decision to drive somewhere is a mindless thing for most of us: We hop in, maybe put our destination in Google Maps, and head from point A to point B. Over time, though, all those miles rack up. The average American drives 13,473 miles per year. If you aimed to plant trees to offset all your carbon emissions from driving, you would need around 37 trees a year, according to Carbonify.com.

It’s time to be more mindful of your driving. Avoid all unnecessary car trips and cluster errands for efficiency, Brown said.

“As a Californian for 35 years, I avoid going out to the store or running errands by car if there isn’t a few stops in that area,” she said. “My favorite mode of transportation is to walk. I like being out in the environment and
feeling the weather. A good rule of thumb is if your destination is one walkable mile or less from your dwelling, opt to walk instead of drive.”

Other non-driving options besides walking? Bike (though admittedly, that can be difficult in big cities with narrow bike lanes), take the train or hop on the bus.

Walking, rather than driving, to destinations near you can make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
Hinterhaus Productions via Getty Images
Walking, rather than driving, to destinations near you can make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

6. Reconsider the number of kids you’d like to have.

In 2009, scientists suggested that having a child is one of the worst things you can do for the environment, especially among the world’s wealthiest people. Americans and other rich nations produce the most carbon emissions per capita, even as those in the world’s poorest nations suffer the most from severe climate change.

While the decision to have children is deeply personal, its impact on the planet is becoming a topic of public conversation again. Given the state of the environment, many believe it’s worth reevaluating ideas about family planning. If you were thinking of having, say, three or more children, could you be just as happy with two? It’s even more worthwhile to consider adoption.

“Population is the number one environmental crisis that no one is addressing,” Brown said. “I think two children is a great idea because you are not adding to the population too much. A friend of mine says that Harry and Meghan have decided to have two for this exact reason. I think that’s a great idea.”

7. Give composting a chance.

Kathryn Kellogg, author of “101 Ways to Go Zero Waste,” considers composting the most effective tool “in the save-the-world tool belt.”

That’s because Americans waste an unbelievable amount of food and most of it ends up in a landfill. In New York City, for instance, the average household will dispose of 650 pounds of organic waste in one year.

“You think food would break down since it’s dumped into a giant hole in the ground, but it doesn’t because landfills aren’t aerated for proper decomposition,” Kellogg said. “Instead, all of that oxygen-deprived organic matter releases methane, and methane is 30 times more powerful than CO2.”

Composting is a good way to combat wastefulness. And Kellogg said not to worry about critters or bad odors; she’s been composting for years and hasn’t had any visitors or awful stench.

“If you have a backyard, you have it pretty easy. You can have a tumbler bin, an enclosed bin that stands alone, a worm bin, or you can even do trench composting,” she said.

Trench composting is when you dig a hole at least a foot deep, put your food scraps in and bury them. (It’s also a safe way to compost pet waste.) Kellogg said you want to make sure your hole is deep enough so that animals passing by won’t be tempted to dig anything up.

What if you live in an apartment? Kellogg recommends using bokashi bins, electric composters and even worm bins.

“Also, if you have a small balcony, a tumbler compost bin would work just fine since you don’t have to have any sort of ground for that,” she said.

8. Don’t rush out to buy new clothes and shop secondhand whenever you can.

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, according to the World Bank. The water used to manufacture clothing has drained rivers and lakes around the world, destroying ecosystems. Look in your closet and drawers, and you’ll no doubt see your personal contribution to this particular problem.

Rectify your fast-fashion buying ways by wearing the clothes you do have instead of running out to purchase a new outfit for every occasion, said Lindsay Miles, a waste educator and author of “Less Stuff: Simple Zero-Waste Steps to a Joyful and Clutter-Free Life.”

“Using what we have and making stuff last might not be as sexy or Instagrammable as buying a shiny new stainless steel reusables kit or purchasing a wardrobe full of new ethical fashion, but that’s what is going to help the environment most,” Miles said.

If you’re really hankering to shop, consider going secondhand. Consignment stores and eBay aren’t the only options worth exploring if you’re sustainably minded. Online resale platforms like Depop, ThredUP, The RealReal and Relovv are worth a look, too. But since any online option requires shipping, a vintage store in your area should be your first go-to.

“This isn’t to say we never buy anything new ever again ― hello, brand new underwear ― we just need to dial it right back,” Miles said. “By doing this, not only are you reducing demand and stemming the flow of new stuff when you buy secondhand (because you’re reducing demand for new) but you’re helping keep existing items in use for longer, maximizing their potential and making the best use of the resources that were used.”

When you do need to shop, consider secondhand stores and online resale platforms.
yoshiurara via Getty Images
When you do need to shop, consider secondhand stores and online resale platforms.

9. Hold more meetings online.

The COVID-19 crisis has made one thing very clear: Working from home works fine for many employees. If you’re in a managerial position at work and your employees are far-flung (they have long local commutes or live in distant cities), continue to suggest video conference calls over in-person meetings when you go back to the office. Brown said she used to log 250,000 air miles a year for work travel but now does most everything ― especially one-on-one meetings ― via Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom.

“I do allow myself to fly for important dates like big events like conferences,” she said. “If I happen to be in a city where I’ve had virtual meetings and I’ve never met the people I’m doing business with, I will reach out to try to meet the person(s) for a coffee or something casual to develop a personal relationship. If I’m making a lot of new business relationships, I will do a quarterly trip to one area to do a ‘geographic’ swoop to ‘press the flesh.’”

10. Talk about this stuff regularly with your friends and family, and get involved politically.

If you tried any of the suggestions above and found it a lot easier than you’d expected, tell your friends and family about it. Personal stories are often the most effective in persuading others to give change a chance.

Of course, this isn’t all on you. Encourage your local elected officials to implement bigger, more substantial changes in your city or district, said Crystal Chissell, vice president of operations and engagement at Project Drawdown, a nonprofit that researches how global warming can be reversed.

“Gather a group to write to or visit your elected officials to let them know you care and expect them to work with experts to explore solutions,” she said. “We will be less overwhelmed by our awareness of the problem when we each recognize our power to collectively solve it, share the tasks and enjoy working together for our common good. We’ll need strong bonds with others to face the challenges ahead.”

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