Recently, my partner and I visited San Andres, Colombia. Each day as I strolled the beaches, I walked past thousands upon thousands of straws that had blown or been carelessly tossed out of fancy drinks. This gave me a flurry of emotions starting with anger, then subsiding into sadness, then finally guilt. Guilt spurred from an understanding that, as individuals, we are able to feel largely detached and unaccountable to the environment.
I know what you're thinking: "She's talking about climate deniers." Well, you're only partially correct. Of course climate deniers are the worst culprits for reasons that I won't waste time diving into here. But people who believe it's the government's sole responsibility to fix climate issues are part of the problem as well. If you think you've checked your activist card each time you vote for a Democrat, think again.
The most important thing for you to do is put your money (literally and metaphorically) where your mouth is. If the majority of us started living more sustainably, we could have a major impact on the planet, regardless of what our government does or doesn't do. In fact, this is already starting to happen despite the US being led by climate deniers who lack a basic understanding of science.
The problem is that many of us don't want to hold ourselves personally accountable to bring about change. Instead of being inconvenienced to make slight lifestyle alterations, we instead deny there's a problem (climate deniers), or look to the government to fix all our issues (some liberals) when instead we can, and should, be the change ourselves.
If you're ready to take the leap into personal accountability for the environment, below is a list of 16 things you can do that will make a large impact. Most are low effort, low cost, yet high value - So there really is no excuse not to take these actions.
Easy Eco-Friendly Activities
1. Switch to Renewable Energy for Free
The average American's carbon footprint is 44,000-50,000 pounds of CO2 per year. Nearly half of that is attributable to home energy usage, which could be offset by switching to renewable. Arcadia Power provides a simple, free way to switch to 50% green energy, thus empowering everyone to personally have an impact in accelerating the adoption of renewable power. It's currently available in all 50 states via partnerships with power providers.
By doing little more than creating an account online, you can reduce your footprint by around 10,000 pounds of CO2 per year. That's a massive impact for little effort...
2. Eat Less Meat and Animal Products
The food / agriculture industry is responsible for a large portion of global emissions - Up to 20% based on some accounts. Meat and dairy are most responsible for these emissions since about 80% of farmland is dedicated to them and their food. Ruminant animals and red meat are especially emission-producing because their inefficient digestive processes require them to eat more food than other livestock.
Many experts believe that one of the best things an individual can do to reduce his / her impact is to reduce meat and dairy consumption - Particularly red meat consumption. By becoming a vegan, you can reduce your footprint by around 2,000 pounds of CO2 per year. You can reduce it by 1,600 pounds per year by becoming vegetarian, and 1,200 pounds per year by not eating red meat. By not eating meat one day per week for a year, you can reduce your impact by about 230 pounds of CO2 per year.
3. Offset Your Flight Miles
Airplanes generate a lot of emissions (Around 550 pounds of CO2 per flight hour) high in the atmosphere where they're least likely to be absorbed. Because of this, it's really, really important to avoid taking unnecessary flights (Ahem, heavy work travelers, there's an amazing new invention called video chat...). However, when you can't avoid flying, you should donate to offset your travels. My partner and I travel a lot (We live out of our truck camper, so most of our travel emissions are from driving). Whenever we fly or drive, I calculate my total emissions, then donate to One Tree Planted or Carbonfund.org to offset them.
As an example, we recently flew to Colombia. The flight was 13 hours round-trip. 13 hours by 550 pounds of CO2 emissions per hour means that I generated around 7,150 pounds of CO2 emissions. To offset this with One Tree Planted, it would cost $148.96, which is a little pricey ($1 = 1 tree planted = -48 lbs CO2). To offset with Carbonfund.org, it would cost $35.75 ($1 = -200 lbs CO2). So, I donated $35 to Carbonfund.org to offset my emissions. I do this each time I fly. Even if I can't offset the entire trip, I offset as much as I can afford.
4. Offset Your Driving Miles
Gas-powered vehicles are one of the largest contributors to our carbon footprints. On average, each mile you drive in a gas vehicle generates a little under 1 pound of CO2 emissions. So, if you drive a lot, you should consider setting up a monthly donation to One Tree Planted or Carbonfund.org to offset your emissions. For example, if you drive 50 miles round-trip to work each day, you generate around 1,500 pounds of CO2 emissions each month. You can offset this by donating $31.25 per month to One Tree Planted, or $7.50 per month to Carbonfund.org. If you buy one less drink at a bar, you've paid for your monthly offset to Carbonfund.org.
5. Buy and Consume Less
You probably need less than one-tenth of the possessions you own. I live out of a pop-up on the back of a truck, which means all my possessions must fit in something slightly larger than a pickup. However, I still have a large and varied enough wardrobe and set of possessions that people frequently compliment me on my style and products. You DO NOT need most of your possessions. So stop buying more.
One way you can 'punish' yourself for over-consumption is by donating each time you buy something you don't need. This is a great way to hold yourself accountable to the environment for your consumption habits.
6. Switch to LED Bulbs
Each time you replace an incandescent bulb with an LED bulb, you reduce your emissions by around 60 pounds of CO2 per year, and save up to $5 per year. This is, again, huge impact for little effort.
7. Buy Local, Grow, or Hunt Your Own Food
Buying locally-grown food, growing your own produce, and hunting are great ways to reduce your impact and hold yourself accountable for your consumption habits. Buying local eliminates the vast majority of food transport emissions, while supporting small, local farmers who are less harmful to the environment than feedlots.
Growing and hunting your own food eliminates most agriculture rearing and transport emissions. It also makes you completely accountable for your own consumption. Hunting takes it a step further by forcing you to deal with the realities of eating meat, which is something most meat-eaters couldn't do.
8. Buy from High-Quality Sustainable Brands
When shopping, a great way to hold yourself accountable to the environment is to buy only high-quality items. By doing this, you'll purchase less overall because your items will last much longer (Some outdoor brands guarantee merchandise for life). Please, I beg you, stop buying fast fashion and other similar items. These are made to fall apart so you need to buy more, and most of these brands have horrible manufacturing practices.
Buying from eco-friendly brands is important because it forces companies to be accountable for their sustainability practices. When increasing numbers of individuals choose to only buy from eco-friendly companies, non-sustainable brands will either take the hint and revamp, or shut down. Since business is more nimble and able to change faster than government, it's important for us to make it clear that we require companies to be eco-conscious.
9. Stop Wasting Food
Americans waste 55 million tons of food per year, or a whopping 40% of the food supply (link). This food waste is responsible for 135 million tons of CO2 emissions. The average family generates 1,800 pounds of CO2 per year from food waste, while the average individual contributes 440 pounds of CO2 per year. You can stop wasting food by buying only what you actually need or will eat (See #5 above), and by composting what you don't eat.
Seriously, it's not difficult to make a compost pile. If you have a backyard, just wrap a fence around a few posts and start tossing food scraps in with leaves or grass. If you live in an apartment, just find a non-airtight container and toss scraps in there. Periodically you can take them somewhere to spread / bury them, or use the soil on your houseplants.
10. Pick Up Waste on Roads, Parks & Beaches
Forcing yourself to pick up trash on roads, parks, beaches, or rivers is a great way to hold yourself accountable for the waste you create. Even if you don't litter, a lot of trash blows out of cans, garbage trucks, or landfills and ends up on the earth and ultimately in the water.
I like to challenge myself to pick up 5 pieces of trash each time I'm on a beach or in a park, and to periodically clean up the road my parents live on. I also pick up 5-10 pieces of trash whenever I'm served a straw or after I'm with a group of people who order drinks with straws. I feel it's good to force myself to deal with the litter my friends and I make so I understand that all actions have consequences. The consequence for using straws is realizing that many will end up in oceans.
11. Use Reusable Water Bottles
Instead of buying plastic water bottles, carry a reusable bottle. If you're worried about water quality, just buy a Life Straw filtering water bottle. I guarantee the water it produces will be as good, if not better, than any you get in a plastic bottle.
12. Use Reusable Straws
In case you haven't heard about the War on Straws, a number of companies and governments have either stopped using them or begun replacing them with eco-friendlier alternatives. I can say from personal experience that they are literally covering beaches, especially in more economically-depressed areas.
Cutting them out of your life should be easy. It's a simple as: (1) Asking for no straw each time you order a water, soda, or cocktail that would typically be served with a straw; and (2) Carrying your own reusable straw with you so you have one when necessary. Here's a good reusable straw option (My partner and I both have one).
13. Use Reusable Bags
There's no reason not to bring-your-own shopping bags. It's a simple as carrying a backpack with you when shopping, or one of the 8 million cloth bags you've probably been given as a marketing promotion. You also can buy your own reusable produce bags.
14. Buy Zero or Minimal Waste Personal Care Products
We live during a time when numerous brands are innovating the personal care space. Not only do we have access to tons of natural personal care and cleaning products, but many of these are zero or minimal waste, which means they don't use plastic packaging (Even if plastic is recyclable, it can only be recycled one to two times before going to the landfill). There are soap and shampoo bars, conditioner bars, plastic-free toothpaste, plastic-free deodorant, metal razors, and bamboo toothbrushes.
15. Use Reusable Coffee Thermoses
Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, or 146 billion cups per year, thus making the US the leading consumer of coffee in the world (link). If you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 pounds of waste in one year. To add to this, Americans throw away 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups each year. Please, please buy a reusable coffee thermos and fill it at your favorite coffee shop or gas station. Trust me, they all accept them.
16. Use Beeswax Wrap or Reusable Food Storage Bags
Instead of using saran wrap or foil, buy reusable beeswax wrap or silicon food storage bags. Most beeswax wrap is washable, reusable, and compostable. Typically each wrap lasts about one year. Silicon food storage bags are washable, reusable, freezable, and should last forever. You can even take them directly to the grocery to place your food in them. I bought a bunch of these to store leftovers, cheese, and other food in our camper.