Skip to navigationSkip to content

Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

AP Photo/Larry Crowe
Consider a different option.
EARTH DAY

These are the three most effective ways to chop your carbon footprint

Earth Day can be a bit overwhelming. Each year, the holiday produces a new spate of commandments from environmentalists on high, ranging from the familiar (Recycle more! Eat local!) to the esoteric (Stop eating almonds!).

For those who freeze up when faced with the prospect of making so many changes, it may be helpful to know that there are a few big decisions you can make to significantly reduce your carbon footprint—and placate those nagging feelings of guilt. Here are three of the most effective strategies for being a bonafide green consumer.

1. Eat less meat.

While people overwhelmingly think of transportation as the most greenhouse gas-heavy sector, the global livestock industry produces more emissions than cars, planes, trains and ships combined, according to a 2014 report by the international affairs think tank Chatham House. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that livestock production accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. That’s because of the energy that goes into raising, feeding, and transporting the animals, as well as the methane they release by belching.

The good news for meat-lovers is that they needn’t give up burgers entirely to start making a positive impact on the planet. A 2014 University of Oxford study using data from 50,000 UK residents found that people could cut their food-related carbon emissions by more than a third simply by lowering their meat consumption from 100 grams to 50 grams each day.

2. Drive less, or not at all.

Whenever you can, rather than get behind the wheel, opt for the bus, subway, bike, or—the best bet of all—your own two legs. Automotive transportation, which emits carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, is responsible for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions. Ditching your passenger car just two days a week reduces your carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 1,590 pounds per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

3. Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot.

At this point, we’re way past the age-old adage “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” motto. The first step on your path to environmentally-friendly living should be to refuse any item—recyclable or not—that you’re unlikely to get much use out of. For some of us, that may mean passing up the temptation to buy a discounted designer jacket that’s almost our size; for others, it may mean resisting the latest kitchen gadgets or high-tech toys.

If you must buy an item, be sure to use it more than once. And be careful when it comes to recycling. While the benefits of recycling typically outweigh the costs, recycling machinery does require energy to crush cans and bottles and reuse them to make new products. In addition, large recycling programs can be financially costly. Last year, Washington, DC spent $1 million on recycling alone—funds that could have been directed elsewhere if people produced less garbage. So be sure to compost or reuse your purchases when you can.

All of these options are significantly better than trashing a product. In the US, which generates the most amount of garbage in the world, each person produces about 4.5 pounds of waste every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s about the size of a small Chihuahua.

These are the big switches people can make if they really want to get the most bang for their metaphorical buck. Of course, there are a lot more things earth-conscious types can do—from forgoing plastic shopping bags and water bottles to buying second-hand clothes and furniture. While the jury’s still out on exactly which cleaning and beauty products are best for the Earth, these lists of generally sustainable products should come in handy. For women, the diva cup is a green girl’s go-to. And when in doubt about a cleaning product, a little baking soda and vinegar will do the trick.

All that said, the key to committing to environmental sustainability is to make choices that are compatible with your personal lifestyle. If you live an hour away from work in a city that lacks good public transportation, there’s not a whole lot you can do about your daily commute. But most of us can make some kind of change to use less energy and produce less waste—and there’s no time like the present to get started.