It’s easy to think that we have to make big sacrifices or investments to have a good environmental impact. Things like installing solar panels or embracing a vegan lifestyle. In fact, we can help the environment by develop little eco-friendly habits.
Most of these tips for reducing human environmental impact require no investment and no sacrifice. They just require thinking about them long enough to form new habits.
Some of them may seem so small that it looks like they don’t matter at all. But consider how much difference they make if you do them day in and day out. Now consider how much difference they make when a tens of millions of people adopt them. That many people making small changes make a big impact.
I don’t mean to belittle the efforts of people who invest a lot of money or make more spectacular sacrifices. But tens of million people making tiny changes can add up to more environmental benefit than tens of thousands of people doing a lot more.
Which of our daily habits has a larger environmental impact than our driving? Here are suggestions for how to help the environment by using less gasoline. Without necessarily going to any fewer places.
Combine errands. It wastes gas to drive to one place, return home, and then drive somewhere else. Whatever you can do while you’re on the way to something else saves gas.
Plan your route to drive the shortest distance for all your combined errands. And prefer right turns to left turns whenever possible.
When your car idles, you’re getting zero miles per gallon. Five minutes a day of idling can use a full tank of gas over the course of a year. If everyone in the country would reduce idling by five minutes a day, it would save 3.8 million gallons of gas and keep 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every day.
Does reducing idling by that much sound like a big change? Then consider something truly tiny.
Many of us start the car and then fasten our seatbelts. It made sense back when it was necessary to warm up a car before driving it. No more.
Fasten your seat belt before you start your car.
It takes about 5 seconds to fasten your seatbelt. If you start your car 6 times a day, that shaves 30 seconds of idling — 10% of your daily goal. Talk about small changes with a big impact!
You can help the environment just by losing weight. That is, take excess stuff out of your trunk. Your car burns more gas the heavier it is. It’s awfully easy to accumulate 100 pounds or more of useless weight. How much good environmental impact would you have just by boosting your mileage by one mile per gallon?
Now let’s look at some ways to help the environment without leaving home. It only takes a little planning and not much effort to reduce your home’s environmental impact.
Let the weather choose when you use appliances like the oven or the dryer that heat up your house. In the summer, use them in the early morning or evening to take pressure off your air conditioner. In the winter use them in late morning or afternoon to take pressure off your furnace.
Speaking of the oven, use a toaster oven instead whenever possible. If you must use the oven, don’t preheat it unless you’re baking pastries.
Take a look at everything plugged into the wall. If it has a large black box for a plug, it’s an energy vampire. It uses electricity even after you’ve turned it off. Unplug energy vampires when you’re not using them.
Look for dripping faucets. If a faucet drips once per minute, you lose a gallon of water every week. If it drips enough to fill an 8-ounce measuring cup in 2 minutes you lose 45 gallons a day!
This first tip is the only one in this article that requires much investment to reduce your environmental impact. You have to pay a plumber. But if you don’t, you’ll have to pay a lot more to your water utility, so it saves a lot of water and a lot of money.
My water bill once went from less than $20 a month to more than a hundred. A toilet was constantly running. I spent too long fiddling with the float ball. Now it has new innards with no float ball. Plumbers don’t use them anymore.
Friends of mine weren’t so lucky. A drip under the floorboards of their kitchen caused part of the floor to rot. Still, their reduced water bill will eventually offset the costs of fixing both the leak and the floor.
Mostly, though, water conservation at home starts with small changes that improve your environmental impact.
If you’re boiling water for tea or coffee, boil only exactly what you need. If you’re boiling potatoes, it’s not necessary to cover them with water. Less than half an inch of water in your smallest pan is enough if you keep the lid on and the heat only high enough to simmer the water. You’ll save both water and the energy needed to heat it. The steam in the pot cooks the potatoes.
Turn the water off when you brush your teeth instead of letting it go down the drain. And if you need only a trickle of water, for hand washing, for example, don’t turn the faucet on full blast.
Reducing paper waste
Americans waste a lot of paper. Any small change you can make to use less paper adds up to a big impact.
Don’t buy paper for writing yourself notes. You probably get plenty of paper printed on one side that you don’t need to keep. Use the back of that paper. And/or write notes on emptied envelopes.
Set up paperless billing with your utilities, mortgage, and other recurring expenses. That saves someone else’s paper, but reduces what you have to recycle. To save your own paper, set up online bill payment with your bank.
For that matter, don’t print email or documents you create on your computer unless absolutely necessary. Your hard drive or cloud storage has plenty of room for storing it, and you can’t use keywords to find anything in a paper file cabinet!
You might as well subscribe to magazines you read regularly, but if an article catches your eye in a display of magazines, read it at the library. Or look online. You help the environment by leaving that magazine on the rack.
It might require sacrificing some convenience to adopt some of these eco-friendly habits. But not much.
Use reusable water bottles and coffee cups. Just think of all the packaging you refuse when you stop buying bottled water or drinking from disposable cups.
Buy non-perishable food in bulk to save on packaging. Chances are it costs less that way, and you can buy as much or as little as you want. Some products you might want are available only in bulk anyway.
And take your own containers and have the store weigh them.
For most produce, you don’t need the plastic bags. Carry your own reusable produce bags, or just put produce loose in the cart.
Prefer reusable products to disposable products. For example, clean up spills with dishcloths and launder them instead of using paper towels you have to throw out. Accumulate cloth shopping bags and take them into stores so you don’t have to take their bags home and discard them.
For non-perishable products you use regularly, prefer the largest package available. One large package uses less packaging than several smaller packages over time.
When you open a plastic bag of something, don’t cut off the corner or top. Leave the bag intact. If you can take it back to a store for recycling, you don’t have to keep track of the little pieces.
Reducing other waste
On the other hand, when you think you have used up a tube of toothpaste or something, cut the tube in half. There’s still usable product in it that you can’t squeeze out. The tube isn’t recyclable, so the smaller pieces don’t matter.
Pay careful attention to what you throw out. Take inventory from time to time! If you notice what you throw out a lot, you can take steps to change some habits.
Say no to take-out table service, napkins, and straws if you plan to eat at home. Prefer your washable tables service, cloth napkins, and dispense with the straw.
Eat vegetarian meals, at least occasionally. Everything we buy has “embedded” energy, water, and waste. That is, everything that went into making and transporting it. When you eat meat, all the food and water necessary to raise the animal is embedded in it. Eating lower on the food chain mean less embedded energy and waste.
Whatever small changes you make to reduce what’s embedded in what you buy had a bigger environmental impact than any of the other tips in this article.
Buy at thrift shops. That merchandise comes with less packaging. And with less embedded energy and water, too. After all, someone else has used not only the item, but whatever is embedded in it.
None of these practices make a big difference taken individually, but if you do all of them, they add up to help the environment. Some of them will also save you money.
And you’re not alone.
Right now, hundreds of millions of people are either forming these eco-friendly habits (and being part of the solution) or they are not (and being part of the problem).
Which group do you want to be in?
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