Through considering 10 key areas of our daily lives, there emerges many simple methods to reduce individual environmental impact, which add up to make a real impact on our planet. We need to take these steps to address the present unprecedented rapid rate of climate change. Many agreements and policies hope to tackle the impacts of our changing climate, aiming to limit warming to a 2°C rise since pre-industrial levels, but the only way to achieve this is through reducing carbon emissions to zero. Taking these steps as New Year’s Resolutions will push us in the right direction towards this goal.
1. Commit to reducing your packaging
Each year, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced, and plastic consumption continues to rise. A primary use is food packaging. Every ingredient used tends to come in some form of packaging, often comprising several materials and layers, all of which are typically discarded upon opening. This produces high waste, often not recycled so ending up in landfill. Even loose food stuffs are transported home in a plastic bag. One plastic bag is used on average for 12 minutes, with an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags consumed globally each year. This can be reduced by taking your own bags to the shops, cutting the need for plastic sue. Buying food loose, widely possible for fruit and vegetables further reduces plastic bags and is typically cheaper where 5 bananas loose cost £0.68 but packaged £1. When choosing foods, consider the packaging; cardboard is lower impact than plastic, followed by glass and metal which both have an infinite number of recycling life cycles, whilst plastic has limited life cycles. Buying in bulk reduces the ratio of packaging to foods and reduces shopping trips and thus emissions. Within this, ensure the foods are non-perishable or have a long shelf-life to ensure no wastage.
2. Commit to energy-efficient cooking
Cooking accounts for about 4% of the average household gas and electricity use, varying by method and cooking time. Informed cooking choices can increase energy-efficiency. A microwave is the most energy-efficient method, followed by a hob then oven. Cooking in batches ensures all the space and heat is used and excess food can be frozen in portions to heat and eat at a later date. Keep the oven closed when cooking to reduce heat loss; keeping the door clean allows you to see the food without opening the door, and using lids on pans reduces the amount of energy needed. Finally, cutting food into smaller pieces increases the surface area to volume ratio so heat is exchanged more efficiently thus reducing cooking time.
3. Commit to green food choices
There are several choices we can make to reduce the environmental impact of our food.
Organic foods are produced in environments of high animal welfare, low levels of pesticides, no herbicides or artificial fertilisers, and environmentally sustainable land management. The sources are inspected at least annually and standards are laid down in European law. Therefore, organic foods reduce chemicals entering the environment and hence help prevent associated problems.
Go veggie or reduce meat consumption as raising animals requires huge amounts of resources and animal by-products pollute airways and waterways.
Buy local produce to reduce food miles and thus reduce your individual carbon footprint by up to 7%. When choosing these foods, identify those in season since this will mean less energy is needed to grow them, unlike foods out of season which often require hot houses.
4. Commit to value fashion
Fast fashion has increased the amount and rate at which clothes are purchased, with retailers responding to changing fashion trends in weeks. This increases discarded clothing which often reaches landfill. To reduce the impact of clothing, choose instead value fashion by buying timeless classics to re-wear each year. Within this, choose environmentally-friendly fabrics. Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that can be harvested after 2-3 years, does not require replanting, and can be grown without fertilisers or pesticides. Fairtrade organic cotton is grown without chemicals or genetically modified organisms, yet this can be labour-intensive. Hemp has a high yield without requiring herbicides or pesticides, and produces versatile, strong clothing. Soy is antibacterial, biodegradable, light and soft. Finally, recycled or upcycled clothes also minimise waste and extends the life of the material, preventing the clothing going to landfills and so reducing the need for raw material production and hence lowering energy consumption and pollution.
5. Commit to eco-friendly cosmetics
Many cosmetics and skincare items are manufactured with over 10,500 unique chemical ingredients, some of which are carcinogenic, and there are no premarket safety testing requirements. However, recent consumer outrage has led to companies increasingly attempting to offer certified organic lines. Exfoliating beads in face and body washes use polyethylene, a plastic substance, found in toothpaste, sun cream, shampoo and many others; one facial cleanser can contain 350,000 beads. These beads are tiny pieces of plastic which are washed down drains and found in rivers and lakes where they are eaten by fish and wildlife, harming animals’ digestive tracts. Therefore, avoid products containing microbeads, microabrasives, polypropylene and polyethylene.
Furthermore, avoid BHA and BHT; preservatives which bioaccumulate and which are toxic to aquatic organisms, being shown to cause genetic mutations in amphibians. BHT also has a moderate to high potential for bioaccumulation in aquatic species. Several brands consciously reduce their environmental impact, including Burt’s Bees, Clearly Natural, Dr Bronner’s, Kirk’s naturals, Kiss My Face and Palmer’s to name a few.
6. Commit to sustainable drinking practices
Water availability and quality is reducing globally. Water is a renewable resource, but global water volume has a finite total and as water becomes contaminated, it becomes unusable thus reducing availability as the ‘renewable’ resource becomes depleted. Therefore, it is increasingly important to reduce water wastage. For hot drinks, only fill the kettle with as much water as is needed. For cold drinks, fill a jug or bottle with tap water at a steady rate, to avoid water loss by splashing, and keep this in the fridge to save running the tap until cold. When taking water from this, only take as much as will be drunk to prevent pouring water away, and if there is ice left over in the glass, put it into a plant pot so when it melts the plant will take up the water.
7. Commit to lower consumption washing
Most of the lifecycle impact of our clothes comes from washing and drying, estimated at 75-80%. The average household does 400 loads of laundry each year, consuming about 13,500 gallons of water. This is because it takes so much energy to heat the water and run the dry cycle. This can be reduced by wearing clothes more than once, with the UNEP stating you can use 5x less energy by wearing jeans at least 3 times, washing them in cold water and skipping the dryer or iron. Most detergents work as efficiently at 30°C as higher temperatures, reducing energy. Furthermore, washing by hand using plungers or pedal washers can significantly reduce energy input. A tumble dryer emits over a ton of CO2 each year. To cut this, hang laundry to dry which reduces wear and tear on clothes from a dryer. Where tumble dryers are necessary, clean the lint filter to increase efficiency and use the moisture sensor which automatically reduces drying time or ends when clothes are dry, reducing energy use. In addition, avoid dryer sheets which contain carcinogenic chemicals and neurotoxins such as toluene and styrene. These can further break down organic fibres, shortening the life of fabrics.
8. Commit to eco-friendly transport
Transportation has both direct and indirect environmental impacts, primarily through the release of several million tons of gases each year. This contributes to climate change and reductions in air, water and soil quality. Furthermore, transport generates irregular and chaotic noise, known to contribute to cardiovascular diseases. To reduce impact, run, walk or cycle for zero-emission journeys or use alternative fuels such as E-85, composed of 85% bioethanol, a renewable fuel from rapeseed, wheat or sugarbeet, and 15% petrol. Investing in an electric vehicle cuts emissions of dangerous gasses, and can be powered by renewable technologies including geothermal, hydroelectric, solar power and wind turbines. This reduces environmental pressure compared to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles using petrol or diesel. Within this, forming a carpool reduces the number of vehicles on the road, minimising pollution and saving money, especially with those habitually driving in a similar direction. Similarly, public transport reduces emissions by reducing the number of vehicles on the road since buses and trains have greater capacity than cars, many of which are also becoming hybrid or electric, and also public transport can decrease congestion.
9. Commit to home improvements
The construction industry is responsible for 40% of anthropogenic carbon emissions, yet many steps can be taken to reduce this. Energy efficient lightbulbs typically use 25-95% less energy than traditional lightbulbs and can last up to 25 times longer than non-energy saving lightbulbs. Insulation retains warmth in the winter and cool in the summer, reducing the amount of carbon emissions used to heat homes. Insulation can be in roofs, walls and floors. Furthermore, insulation can be made of natural products made from renewable, organic resources which can be reused, recycled and are fully biodegradable. Softer forms of insulation further contribute through using materials that promote heat retention by poor thermal conductivity including carpets and curtains. Investing in solar panels harnesses the sun’s energy, a renewable source that will last for 5 billion years. Solar panels consist of many photovoltaic cells which allow photons to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity. This reduces demand for non-renewable polluting energy sources with surplus captured energy bought from individuals by the national grid.
10. Commit to recycling
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. This serves as an alternative to conventional waste disposal, saving materials and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Most local councils offer recycling collection, requiring some separation of materials to be melted and reformed for another purpose. This reduces the need to extract, refine and process raw materials, processes which create substantial air and water pollution, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Reusing existing objects is often possible through local community and social support schemes. This is preferable to recycling since it requires less resources, energy and labour and further reduces the need for resource extraction. 40% of residential waste is compostable materials. Composting this reduces the volume of waste to landfill and prevents organic materials entering landfill where they break down anaerobically, producing methane, 21 times more harmful than CO2. Organics can also react with metals in the landfill to produce toxic leachate, a potential source of groundwater pollution. Composting further reduces the impacts of chemical fertilisers running into waterways, and reduces CO2 emissions from vehicles used to transport waste. Finally, the compost produced can be used, reducing the purchase and production of artificial garden products and hence the energy required to produce these.
OCS Media and Research Team
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