10 Easy Things You Can Do to Save the Earth

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

The idea that everyone everywhere should go carbon neutral is unrealistic, but the idea that everyone everywhere could significantly reduce their carbon footprint is both realistic, and something that can be done immediately. Two of the main arguments against attempting to reduce one’s carbon footprint are that the steps to do so will be expensive and will require a large time investment.

With that, I present this list of ten things you can to reduce your carbon footprint, while also saving money, and which don’t require more than a few minutes of your time. Let me know if you like this list and I’ll post more ideas.

1) Use CFLs and LEDs

I know, I know, everyone says this, but it’s true! Compact fluorescent lamps are inexpensive when you consider that they last up to 10 times longer and use about 75% less energy than incandescent light bulbs. Don’t like that bright white color? Most CFLs come in a range of color temperatures, so you can get ones that are more like the bulbs you’re used to.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I want to point out two drawbacks to CFLs. First of all, some of them do not work on dimmers. Many do, however, and the distinction will be made on the packaging. Second, CFLs contain mercury, which is hazardous to the environment. As such, CFLs must be disposed of properly. Contact your local waste management facility to find out what’s available in your area (or find out using this website).

LED lamps are relatively new and still fairly expensive. However, in the long run, they’re far less expensive than even CFLs. LED lamps use very little electricity and last 6 times longer than CFLs! LED technology is constantly getting better, and they’re being used everywhere these days. Unless something better suddenly appears, you can expect LEDs to become the de facto source of light in most applications. True, they aren’t right in every situation, but for most things, they’re perfect.

2) Turn off your lights

Now that you have light bulbs that use less electricity, turn them off. People seem to turn on lights completely unconsciously. It amazes me that people have such a hard time turning lights off, or leaving lights off, even when they aren’t needed.

For example: The break room where I work has a big window that lets in a lot of light. Despite this, the lights are almost always on, even when no one is in the break room. Why? When I go into the break room and the lights are off, I can see perfectly well. I can understand if someone can’t see well enough and actually needs the extra light, but turn it off when you’re done! Even in the middle of the night, the lights in the break room stay on. Considering that the break room is empty over 90% of the (24 hour) day, why are they on almost 100% of the time?

A classic argument against turning lights on and off all day is that it wears down the life of the bulb. The MythBusters tested this, and busted it.

The savings of turning off your lights are substantial. If you have a bulb that uses 60 watts per hour, and you turn it off for one extra hour per day, you could conserve nearly 22,000 watts of energy per year!

3) Stop drinking bottled water

Before you roll your eyes and skip this one, read what I have to say.

The production and delivery of a single 1 liter bottle of Fiji Water requires 6.74 times as much water as is in the bottle. Does that make sense? I like to pick on Fiji Water, because it’s the most popular, but the fact of the matter is that all bottled water suffers from the same problem. It’s unimaginably bad for the environment.

The main argument in favor of bottled water is that it’s cleaner than tap water. This isn’t necessarily true. Since the FDA doesn’t regulate bottled water very heavily, the standards of what’s allowed to be in it are very low. In fact, the FDA doesn’t even require that bottled water be bottled in sanitary conditions! The municipal water supply, on the other hand, is regulated by the EPA, which has very stringent standards. Moreover, almost 25% of the bottled water that people drink is nothing but tap water that has been bottled! That’s not to say that it’s unsafe, just that it could be.

A lot of sources say to buy a Nalgene bottle, but I’m not a fan of them (no good reason why, I’ve just never liked them). I buy a bottle Fiji Water every once in a great while, then re-use the bottle until it’s no good anymore. That way, I can look “trendy” without killing the planet (as much).

4) Adjust the thermostat on your water heater

The current advice is to set it to 120 degrees. That’s where mine is set, and I’m never disappointed with the temperature of the water. The only drawback is that Morah and I have to plan our showers a little more carefully to ensure that there will be enough hot water for both of us, but Morah usually showers at night, and I usually shower in the morning, so it’s working out well for us.

Also, keeping it at 120° is a good idea, because anything hotter could scald you (even 120° is pretty damn hot).

5) Adjust the thermostat on your heating/cooling system

Raise it two degrees in the summer and lower it two degrees in the winter. This has the potential to stop 2,000 pounds of CO2 pollutants from entering the atmosphere each year. That having been said, if you absolutely need the extra two degrees, go for it. Just take a moment to think if there’s another, more Earth-friendly option (like putting on or taking off clothes).

Better yet, get a programmable thermostat. When no one is home, or when everyone is asleep, let the house be uncomfortably warm in the summer and cold in the winter. Just don’t forget about indoor pets!

6) Conserve water

A faucet that drips at the rate of one drop per second will end up wasting 2,700 gallons of water annually! A leaky toilet could waste 200 gallons every day! Fixing these leaks is often simple and inexpensive; the cost to fix it will be more than made up on your water bill.

Plants and grass also suck up a lot of water. Try to landscape using plants that are native to where you live; these plants will be used to the amount of water found in the area naturally. Over watering is a common and costly problem. Your grass may not even need to be watered! Your grass doesn’t need to be watered every day; watering your grass deeply and infrequently is the best plan. When you water your grass, do it in the morning or evening. Direct sunlight will evaporate much of the water.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” But that’s pretty gross, so instead, try putting a brick in your toilet tank to use less water (you could buy a low-flow toilet, but this list is supposed to save you money while saving the planet. Plus, have you ever installed a toilet? It’s not as easy as it seems).

7) Drive the speed limit

Not only is it much safer, but you’ll have lower carbon emissions and you’ll save money — both by improving your fuel economy and by not getting a speeding ticket.

8) Bag the bags!

The case against plastic bags is fast becoming a hot issue, and it’s no surprise when you consider the facts. Plastic bags have been choking our planet for 30 years, both during the manufacturing process and after they’re thrown away.

Here are some easy and inexpensive ideas to help reduce the number of plastic bags you use:

  • Reduce whenever possible. I recently bought a jar of mustard from a local farm and the woman said, “Let me put that in a bag for you.” I quickly grabbed the jar and said, “That’s okay, I don’t need one.” And it’s true, I didn’t need one. Next time you’re buying something, stop and think whether or not you really need it in a bag.
  • Reuse plastic bags whenever you can. Ziploc bags are particularly useful, but also surprisingly durable. I personally reuse Ziploc bags as many times as I can before disposing of them. I bring crackers with me to work almost every day, and I can reuse the same bag for weeks before it needs to be replaced.
  • When you buy groceries, bring your own bags to the grocery store. Reusing the plastic bags they give you, while possible, probably isn’t a good idea since they’re so flimsy. Instead, invest in some cloth bags. Most super markets sell them near the checkout counters. At my grocery store, the bags only cost 99 cents each, and every time I use them, I earn a 5 cent rebate (per bag!).
  • You could combine both of the two above ideas into one. A girl I used to work with would bring her snacks to work in a wax paper bag, which she would reuse.

9) Don’t eat fast food

I was thinking about this recently and I realized that fast food is absolutely awful for the environment.

Before I explain why, let me just point out that I don’t know exactly how the distribution of fast food works, so this is all just conjecture. Also, keep in mind that each chain will have its own methods, which may differ from other restaurants.

Most likely, the food you get at a fast food restaurant came from somewhere many miles from where you live (possibly even another country). It’s shipped to a processing center, where it undergoes a factory process. It is then shipped to at least one distribution center, where it gets sent out to your local restaurant. Don’t forget that all of the packaging also goes through this process. So before you even order it, your food and its packaging has been shipped at least six times (three times each for the food and packaging) and gone through at least two factory processes (one each for the food and packaging). By the time you order your food, its carbon footprint is huge.

After you order it, the food is cooked (which required energy, thereby expending more carbon) and you throw the packaging away (and we all know what happens to the garbage).

Again, this is all just what I assume happens based on what I’ve learned over the years about agriculture, processing, and shipping. For some hard numbers, check out Jamais Cascio’s great article, the cheeseburger footprint.

The bottom line: Not only does fast food clog your arteries with cholesterol, but it also clogs landfills with garbage and the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses. Plus, it’s more expensive to eat at most fast food restaurants than it is to eat something from home.

10) Walk or ride your bike whenever you can

Over half of our CO2 comes from vehicles, and for each mile you eliminate, you save one pound of CO2.

I’ll admit that this one might not save you time (unless finding parking takes a long time), but it will save you a lot of money and it’s very healthy for you. You want to know the real reason why French people stay thin? It’s because they walk everywhere. Where I live, the public transportation isn’t the greatest, which makes it kind of hard, but I do walk to and from work when I can.

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  1. People laugh at me, but I work in my office during the day with the lights off. I have a window, I have sunshine…that’s enough for me.

    You have an interesting site. Hope you make it back to Hawaii someday, but I love Washington state too— so gorgeous!

  2. Good Post.

    I reuse water bottles to carry water around with me. I usually take my own lunch to work (I have not yet completely gotten rid of tin foil, sometimes I just can’t fit a tupperware box into my backpack). today I had mine on a bench in the yard with a colleague when three guys took a seat there as well. each of them had a plastic bag, in it takeaway food in a plastic container and plastic forks and knives. I don’t get it. I just don’t get why all that is necessary. Plus I wrote an article yesterday that didn’t make it into the paper, because “climate change isn’t that interesting”. at the moment it feels like me against the world, at least in this company…

  3. @Lisa – I wish I had a window near my desk! I’m stuck in a windowless basement, so I’m forced to have the lights on.

    @mcCutcheon – I’m glad you liked the post! Tupperware, while fairly “green”, can still be a bit of a headache. My wife and I have been searching for reusable lunch boxes/bags so we can further reduce our need for plastic bags (we currently reuse the few plastic bags we have left from the grocery store). We’ve found some really cool lunch boxes (there was an awesome SpongeBob SquarePants one), but we haven’t settled on one yet because we have some Tupperware that wont fit in any of them (and I don’t want to haul around a giant cooler bag thing).

  4. I know this may sound umm wierd but my mom has a semi good solution for your tupperware dilemma, depending on what you are taking for lunch. We always had to bring home the ziplock bags my parents used to pack our individual lunch items in, so my mom could wash them and reuse them until the side seams broke. I know it sounds a little strange but we always got at least three uses out of one bag. I think it was more for saving money but she’s also always been big into the 3 R’s of environmentalism, especially reuse.

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