How to Help the Environment: 31 Simple Ways You Can Make a Difference
Yes, big changes are needed, but little ones add up. These simple lifestyle choices can reduce your carbon footprint—and make a major impact.
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It’s pretty easy being green
Scientists around the world are in almost unanimous agreement that our planet is facing a catastrophic climate crisis. Carbon emissions and greenhouse gases are on the rise and wreaking havoc on the Earth’s atmosphere, and experts believe that human activity is largely responsible. When Earth Day rolls around every year, we’re reminded of how dire the situation is and feel spurred to action, especially after reading some inspiring Earth Day quotes. But, of course, instead of simply sharing these sorts of things on social media, we need to figure out exactly how to help the environment every day.
While instituting environmental changes on a grand scale would help reverse the problem, the little things do add up. And right now, most of us are definitely on the wrong path. Research shows that each of us needs to get our carbon footprint down to 1.87 tons per year by 2050 to make a meaningful difference. (In the United States, we’re currently averaging a whopping 18.3 tons apiece.) To reduce your carbon footprint, first, calculate what it is and then try making the small changes suggested in this article. These 31 ways to help the environment are so easy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t try them before.
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Change your eating habits
We don’t need crazy ideas to save the planet. One way to help the environment is by reducing your food waste, and all you need to do is use a smaller plate. Seriously. It’s really true that our eyes are (metaphorically) bigger than our stomachs, and by tricking ourselves into taking less, we decrease our chances of serving more than we can reasonably eat. And there’s no shame in going back for seconds! Learning to love leftovers is another way to waste less. Almost anything you can cook or order in will taste just as good, or even better, the next day. Plus, there’s the added benefit of providing an extra meal or two that you didn’t have to cook on a busy evening or spend extra money to buy.
Bought too much at the bulk discount store? Considering donating unopened, unused items to a food pantry or slipping them into one of the numerous community fridges that have popped up during the pandemic to help our neighborhoods. You can also donate extra produce you’ve grown to organizations like Ample Harvest, as well as learn how to compost what you can’t eat or donate. Here’s where else you can donate practically anything.
Give beef the boot
Good news, meat lovers: You don’t have to go full vegetarian to substantially shrink your carbon footprint. But cutting beef from your diet can have a big impact. That’s partially because whenever a cow passes gas, it emits atmosphere-destroying methane, a greenhouse gas, into the air. And, of course, higher demand for meat equals more cows utilized by the meat industry. Eliminating beef from your diet for just one year can reduce your carbon footprint by 882 pounds, according to the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems. Food production already contributes to about a quarter of the Earth’s greenhouse gases, but it’s the beef industry that packs one of the biggest punches. Here’s what would happen if everyone stopped eating meat one day a week.
Sure, minimalism is a hot topic right now, as everyone scrambles to Kondo-ize their existence. But simplifying doesn’t just mean tossing excess clothing and organizing your closet. It also means using less in all areas of your life. Do you really need another pair of sneakers? Could you reuse a plastic vegetable bag when you shop for produce, rather than taking a new one every time? Could you bring your own bag when you shop for what essential clothing you do need in order to transport it home? Could you mend that small rip in your jeans rather than deciding they should go in the trash? Also think about supporting your local re-saler, such as Buffalo Exchange, to find gently used clothing, shoes, and accessories.
There are some things we can’t avoid buying, like paper and toner for the printer, or a new air conditioner when the old one gives out. So, what can you do to help the environment when you need to purchase these items? When it comes to paper products, look for 100 percent recycled—not just with printer paper but with other office supplies, too. The same goes for toilet paper and paper towels. Also, look into having your printer cartridges refilled with ink rather than purchasing new cartridges (and new plastic) every time. And when it comes to appliances, look for the EnergyStar label to tell you that what you’re buying is as energy efficient as it can be.
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Shift your energy use at home
Old habits can die hard. But again, with practice, you can do a number of things to help the environment by shifting the way you use energy at home. Turn off the lights when you leave a room. Ditch the incandescent light bulbs, which waste 90 percent of their energy as heat, and switch to LED bulbs. Unplug your electronic devices whenever you can, too. And finally, save 550 pounds of CO2 from getting into our atmosphere every year by turning your water heater down to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. One thing to note: Some “eco-friendly” habits are actually bad for the planet, so make sure to do your research first.
Up your lawn game
Every year, American lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, and we use 200 million gallons of gas for mowing and pump 70 million pounds of pesticides into our soil, water, and air, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. For a multitude of reasons, lawns are also a dead zone for important pollinators, birds, and numerous other species. So, think about swapping out turf grass for native grasses that support biodiversity and don’t need much mowing. Contact your local university extension program to learn about integrated pest management, to cut down on all those chemicals. Or consider going full-on, beautiful rogue with a wildflower garden to replace your lawn altogether.
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Plant a tree—or three!
Got even a little bit of space in your yard, or do you have a patio? Consider planting a tree—in the ground or in a planter. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a tree can help clean the air around us, as well as provide essential food to bees, birds, and other species, and cool the temperature of the area that surrounds us. Basically, it offers multiple powerful services to help protect the environment all in one beautiful package.
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The closer you are to things that are grown and made, the smaller your carbon footprint. Why? Because they have to travel less to get to you—and that means less fossil fuel use. It also means less fossil fuel use to keep your foods cool and fresh as they make their way to your local supermarket. Buying from farmers markets in your neighborhood is also a good way to support local farms that likely have better ecological practices than those that are part of the industrial agricultural system that is responsible for so much of our food (and poor ecological practices).
Sign up for citizen science
Believe it or not, you can help scientists draft conservation plans for your area. How? By giving them a little insight into your environmental pursuits. Did you get into birding this year? Consider logging the birds you see on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird. Is it butterfly season? Send in your butterfly tallies to Butterfly Conservation. If you live in a place with beach cleanups or one that helps baby turtles make it to the ocean when they hatch, those are other great volunteer opportunities that can make a huge difference.
Are you champing at the bit to start traveling again once the pandemic comes to an end? A one-way flight from London to New York emits .67 tonnes of CO2 per passenger, the BBC reports—with aviation generally contributing about 2 percent of the world’s global carbon emissions. No, we’re not suggesting that you stay home and ditch your overseas dreams, but you can travel in an environmentally friendly way. Flying non-stop is a good idea, for example, since every takeoff and landing adds emissions to your trip. Also, choose to fly economy. According to the Earth Institute, “Business class is responsible for almost three times as many emissions as economy because in economy, the flight’s carbon emissions are shared among more passengers; first-class can result in nine times more carbon emissions than economy.”
Change how you hydrate
Have you bought a reusable water bottle yet? No? Why not? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), every week Americans buy enough plastic water bottles to circle the globe five times over. Making that simple switch to a reusable water bottle can engender a massive ecological benefit. Don’t like the taste of your tap water? Consider investing in a water filter or purifier. Here are more reusable versions of things you use every day.
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Don’t forget to recycle!
It’s never too late to embrace recycling—or to get better at accomplishing what should be a simple and by now second-nature action on all our parts. Paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, plastic grocery bags, certain metals—these can all be saved from the landfill and pumped back into the circular economy in almost every community in the country. In fact, you can recycle almost anything. Of course, you’ll be recycling a lot less if you embrace the other suggestions in this story and cut back on your consumption in the first place.
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Master the art of packing light
Dragging half your wardrobe around in an overstuffed suitcase doesn’t just wreck your back—it also takes a serious toll on the environment. Planes, trains, and automobiles burn massive amounts of fossil fuels to transport heavy baggage, bombarding the atmosphere with carbon emissions. In fact, the transportation sector is the single biggest culprit in this department, according to the EPA. Be a responsible traveler by packing only what you absolutely need and by choosing a carry-on instead of a huge suitcase. Limiting your luggage to 33 pounds (15 kilograms) can save up to four gallons of fuel—and eliminate those hefty excess baggage fees, too. Wondering which is worse for the environment: flying or driving? We investigated.
Clean up your skin-care routine
The quest for a flawless complexion comes at an unfortunate price to the planet. Beauty-product packaging relies heavily on plastic, which has an enormous carbon footprint throughout its life cycle. Plastic production alone generated about 850 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019, according to the Center for International Environmental Law. Luckily, there are lots of eco-conscious skin-care products out there. Each wipe can be used up to 200 times to remove makeup, cleanse, and exfoliate. Best of all, croon’s packaging is made from 100 percent recycled materials—and not a trace of plastic.
RELATED: The Best Eco-Friendly Gifts
Unplug your coffee machine
It might not occur to you to unplug electronic items like your coffee machine, microwave, and computer when they’re shut off or powered down. But they’re actually consuming “vampire energy” in their dormant states. Since most of the energy used to power homes is made of fossil fuels, little leaks add up to serious environmental damage. Vampire energy actually accounts for 1 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to Harvard University. You can remedy this—and lower your utility bill—by unplugging your appliances.
Prevent junk mail from piling up
Junk mail is a major nuisance, but did you know that it’s also predatory to the environment? The average adult gets 41 pounds of junk mail per year, which has a carbon footprint of about 48,000 cars, according to the Matador Network. Today is the day to end the madness. Sign up for the services of a site like DirectMail.com or USJunkMail.com to get your name off mailing lists and stop getting most of that unwanted mail.
Buy from eco-conscious companies
What if you could reduce your carbon footprint simply by taking the shirt off your back and replacing it with one that prevents deforestation? Amour Vert, a sustainable clothing manufacturer, plants one tree for each tee you purchase from its inventory of chic basics. Slip on a super soft tee made from organic cotton and sustainably harvested beechwood fibers—biodegradable, free of pesticides, and luxuriously soft—and automatically contribute to the company’s partnership with American Forest. According to One Tree Planted, each new tree will eventually remove about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air, converting it into oxygen you can breathe for two years.
Fine-tune your driving skills
Carpooling and investing in hybrid cars aren’t the only things that can reduce your carbon footprint (though they do help). Making little adjustments to your driving style can also get you on the right environmental track. Things like accelerating slowly, obeying the speed limit, and trying to avoid stopping short can help scale back your car’s carbon emissions by up to 30 percent, according to Carbon Fund. Making sure your car is running smoothly helps, too.
Breathe life into your backyard
The concept of photosynthesis is simple: Plants “inhale” carbon dioxide and “exhale” oxygen. Since this natural conversion process helps pull excess carbon emissions out of the atmosphere, planting a garden is an easy way to do your part. Pro tip: Try an edible garden. Not only will you be growing your own “organic” food, but if you replace 20 percent of your store-bought food with home-grown food, you’ll also generate about 68 fewer pounds of carbon emissions per year, according to the Climate Action Business Association. Get started by choosing one (or more!) of these easiest vegetables to grow at home.
Swap supermarket sweets for fair-trade treats
Opting to bypass major manufacturers and shop fair trade whenever possible is a carbon-footprint game-changer. Not only does the industry support the economies of developing countries, but it also holds product suppliers to rigorous environmental standards. To sell fair-trade products like chocolate, coffee, and produce, farmers must diligently monitor and cut back on their greenhouse-gas emissions. Plenty of companies have gotten in on the fair-trade game, like the award-winning chocolate company ME to WE, which ensures that farmers earn a fair wage and that education is accessible to children in Ecuador’s local communities.
Make treasures from trash
One pretty effortless way to reduce your carbon footprint is by upcycling: the creative and cost-saving art of reinventing things you no longer use instead of trashing them. The benefits are hard to dispute. Just ask the EPA, which coined the term “sustainable materials management” to describe the plight of consumerism. Allegedly, the phenomenon contributes to about 42 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Some companies are doing the thinking for you. Take Rumpl’s NanoLoft puffy blankets, for instance. Each blanket is now made from 60 post-consumer plastic bottles!
Trade plastic produce bags for renewable mesh
Plastic may be one of the most ingenious inventions of our time, but it’s also become one of the biggest threats to our environment. Plastic is made up almost entirely of fossil fuels, meaning that its carbon footprint is off the charts. Want to start eliminating plastic from your life? Start small by ditching those little produce bags you usually get at the supermarket. Instead, keep your kale in reusable mesh produce bags, like these from purifyou, which are ethically manufactured using raw, organic, unbleached cotton. You can also use these multitasking satchels for laundering delicates, carrying toiletries, or stashing office supplies. Here are more facts that will make you stop using plastic.
Swap single-use plastic water bottles for cans and glass
It happens to the best of us. You forget your reusable water bottle at home, and now you have to figure out a way to hydrate responsibly on the go. Thankfully, some resourceful product manufacturers have finally put water in a can instead of a plastic bottle. RightWater captures water from natural springs in 100 percent recyclable aluminum, BPA-free cans, which have a carbon footprint up to 21 percent lower than plastic. (And while you’re at it, ditch the plastic straws and use reusable stainless steel straws instead.) What about glass, you ask? That’s another viable alternative. Here’s some more good news: These major companies are getting rid of plastic for good.
Walk the walk
The average pair of running shoes is responsible for about 30 pounds of carbon emissions, according to one study from MIT. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of that pollution comes from the manufacturing process. But traditional packaging and delivery methods aren’t great for the environment either. Pound the pavement in a pair of Allbirds sneakers instead. The ethical company produces stylish kicks using responsibly harvested, renewable materials and sound shipping methods.
Put the brakes on fast fashion
The low cost and convenience of fast fashion come at an enormous price to the planet. When major retailers scramble to manufacture massive amounts of disposable clothing—much of which is made with synthetic fabrics—carbon emissions go through the roof. In fact, the textile industry is the second largest contributor to pollution after the oil industry, according to the journal Nature Climate Change. The next time you need some retail therapy, skip the mall and head to a secondhand store or local designer instead. Odds are, you’ll get your paws on some longer-lasting threads, to boot.
Put your clothesline to use
Modern conveniences have their downsides, and tumble dryers are no exception. More than three-quarters of your laundry’s carbon footprint comes from using dryers, not washers. But air-drying your clothes can reduce your household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds a year, according to Green America. If it’s been a while since you gave your clothesline a workout, you might be in need of new clothespins. Stock up on these bamboo clasps, and then let the fresh air and sunshine do what they do best.
Launder your clothes in cold water
While washers emit significantly fewer carbon emissions than their tumble-drying counterparts, they still contribute to the crisis. An easy way to clean up your domestic routine is to wash your clothes on a cold cycle. Many of the greenhouse gases generated by a washer are released when the water is being heated. Simply choosing cold temperatures can reduce the appliance’s carbon emissions by 75 percent. It can also save you money in the process.
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Get sweet on ethically sourced honey
Despite all of its hard work pollinating fruits and vegetables, the average bee will produce only about one teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. The production, processing, packaging, and shipping of such a delicacy generate a dangerous amount of greenhouse gases. As a result, ethically sourced honey farms led by balanced beekeepers are cropping up everywhere, so making the switch should be pretty painless. Make sure the brand you buy is True Source Certified, which means it’s sourced right here in the U.S.A.
Swap four wheels for two
The typical car produces up to 4.6 metric tons of carbon per year, according to the EPA. A bicycle, on the other hand, doesn’t directly produce any carbon dioxide at all. Bicycles are fueled by humans, and humans are fueled by food. So, for those of you keeping track, bikes indirectly generate carbon emissions because of their link to the food industry. Still, this is a big improvement. Experts say that riding a bike instead of driving a car can make your carbon footprint ten times smaller.
RELATED: How to Choose the Best Bike for You
Shave one minute off your shower time
A hot shower is one of life’s small pleasures, but it’s also a major carbon-emission culprit. The average showerhead produces 2.5 gallons of water per minute, and water heaters work hard to heat up all the H2O. As a result, hot showers generate a quarter pound of carbon each minute. If we all decided to cut our clean routines by just one minute each day, we could save a shocking 20.9 billion pounds of carbon emissions each year, according to Mother Jones.
Switch to eco-friendly fertilizer
Fertilizer may be crucial to healthy lawns and gardens, but the synthetic store-bought kind, which is filled with nutrient-enhancing nitrogen, dumps loads of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. How does this affect your carbon footprint? Brace yourself: Nitrous oxide is about 300 times as harmful to the environment as carbon dioxide, and it can linger for more than a century. While eco-friendly fertilizers are still in their infancy, one viable alternative is a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer like Milorganite. It emits less nitrous oxide into the air, since much of the nitrogen leaks slowly into the soil.
- Columbia University Earth Institute: “The 35 Easiest Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint”
- University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems: “Carbon Footprint Factsheet”
- National Resources Defense Council: “More Sustainable (and Beautiful) Alternatives to a Grass Lawn”
- NOAA: “Protecting Our Planet Starts with You”
- BBC News: “Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train?”
- EPA: “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”
- Harvard University: “Eliminate Vampire Power”
- Matador Network: “Carbon footprint of US junk mail equivalent to 480,000 cars”
- Carbon Fund: “For Individuals”
- Climate Action Business Association: “5 Ways Gardening Can Reduce Your Carbon Footprint”
- MIT News: “Footwear’s (carbon) footprint”
- Nature Climate Change: “The Price of Fast Fashion”
- Green America: “5 Reasons to Ditch Your Dryer”
- EPA: “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle”
- The Conversation: “Meet N2O, the greenhouse gas 300 times worse than CO2”