It’s hard not to avoid news about climate change and politicians’ opinions about what should be done to address it. Coffee shops are offering reusable straws and grocery stores reward shoppers for bringing their own bags.
No matter what might be said about the environment or a person’s particular political leaning, this planet is the only one we have and we are called to be stewards of it. As scientists share their findings about our impact on the planet, terms like carbon footprint and renewable energy have become commonplace, and people are educating themselves on what habits they can practice to make a difference.
Each of us does have an impact on the planet by the way we live. It can be overwhelming, though, to know where to start when it comes to changing our habits. Even small changes can have important effects, though. When I was trying to make steps toward better practices for my own ecological responsibility, I asked an expert for some advice — Kate Kostelc, a science teacher with more than 15 years of experience in research and a master’s in biology. Here were her biggest recommendations:
Watch what you eat
One of the industries with the biggest climate impact is agriculture. What you eat, and how much you eat matters, Kostelc says. She encourages eating locally and seasonally. “If you’re eating strawberries in February,” Kostelc explains, “it probably didn’t come from around here.”
You might consider giving up meat for #MeatlessMondays because the beef industry uses a lot of energy and resources to produce its products. For example, the non-profit Meatless Monday (which is part of the Monday Campaigns through Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Syracuse Universities) found that “the energy it takes to produce one-quarter pound of beef is about the equivalent needed to power your iPhone for six months.” Their research produces health initiatives that advocate for decreasing large scale meat production which “would significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.”
Kostelc also suggests reconsidering how you handle your leftovers or takeout. “Bring your own containers if you’re going to order out.” she says. Traditional takeout tends to be provided in plastic containers that can’t be recycled. Try using CSAs, farmer’s markets, or other local sources for fruits, vegetables, and meats.
Watch what you wear
Another industry with big climate impact is the fashion industry. Not only is this industry notorious for its working conditions and low wages, but it’s also a major culprit when it comes to waste and items in landfills. Every second of every day, one garbage-truck-sized amount of clothing is dumped in a landfill or burned, and 95 percent of clothing that is thrown out could actually be recycled or reused.
The fashion industry’s production creates extremely high carbon emissions and many by-products that introduce pollutants into the atmosphere and water supply. One way to counteract this is to consign clothing or purchase from thrift stores — consigning one pair of jeans conserves 279 liters of water.
“Look at what you wear, how it’s made, and where you get it from,” Kostelc advises. As cheap as that cute sweater is from Target or H&M, fast fashion contributes to environmental waste. Instead, try borrowing clothing from friends, or services like Rent the Runway. Purchase from vintage shops, thrift stores, or brands that have ethical, sustainable materials and labor practices in their factories such as Nisolo, ABLE, Everlane, and Krochet Kids.
The convenience of ordering from Amazon is hard to beat, but those deliveries also use a lot of plastic and non-recyclable materials.
Watch how you use energy
The third area Kostelc recommends changing to make the biggest, most immediate impact on the environment is to look at the energy sources you consume. If possible, she suggests taking public transportation, biking, or walking instead of driving everywhere. Or she recommends investing in a car that uses fuel efficiently.
You can also look into using solar panels for your home, or smart heating technologies that won’t waste energy. Skip the Uber unless absolutely necessary, and turn off lights when you leave a room. Don’t blast the AC every time it’s hot, but use a lower-energy fan instead.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation account for about 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of U.S. GHG emissions.” If you are the only one in your car as you commute, you are producing 76 percent more greenhouse gas than you would if you took rail transit. Light rail and bus systems are other avenues to conserve carbon-producing energy. And if public transportation isn’t an option where you live, maybe you can carpool one or two days a week instead.
The key to all of these recommendations is to simply be a more mindful and conscious consumer. We can all be more aware of what we eat, what we wear, and how we get around. All of these things we do add up daily and have more of an effect than we realize. Start small with one new habit at a time, and once that becomes part of your routine, add another new habit. Each change we make can have a greater impact in the long-run.