As the hard realities of climate change become clearer in our daily lives, taking responsibility for mitigating these effects is a front-of-mind issue. But meaningful change does not mean a grim life of deprivation. New habits and energy-smart investments can make a real difference.
Peter LaPuma, of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, recommends finding an activity that fits your budget and energy level.
"Treat it like something that's fun and get into it," he said. "Learn about an energy-saving activity enough to where you feel comfortable with it; then move on to the next activity."
This project relied on the expertise of LaPuma and Sabrina McCormick, both associate professors of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University, to explain meaningful ways each person can reduce the rapid rate of climate change and contribute to a healthier planet on different scales.
“I wanted to learn how to live sustainably and demonstrate that it’s a good quality of life,” said LaPuma, who has tried many of the recommendations below. “I didn't want people to think that it was running off into a cave somewhere and becoming a hermit or something like that. This is actually a very good, very healthy lifestyle.”
No matter how much time and money you have, you can help stave off the effects of climate change.
Keep scrolling to learn about the most effective ways you can help the planet — from creating an energy efficient home to practicing green shopping to adopting sustainable eating habits. You can use the sliders below to learn how to fight climate change through activities that fit your budget and resources.
When your home is properly insulated, heat is held in during the winter and kept out during the summer. More insulation means less energy is used for heating and cooling. Using less electricity, natural gas, propane or heating oil reduces carbon emissions. The cost of insulation depends on the size of the home, but you can save money by insulating walls yourself.
High-efficiency windows help create a tight "envelope" so your house doesn't lose temperature-controlled air to the outside. Installing new windows can help keep your home cooler on hot days and warmer when the temperature drops, reducing the amount of energy used to control the temperature indoors.
If you’re a renter and new windows aren’t an option, try reflective blinds, insulated curtains or window film or caulking. By cutting down on drafts in the winter and reducing radiant heat during the summer, these alternatives to high-efficiency windows can reduce the energy used to heat and cool your home. “It’s the low-tech stuff that is the most economical,” said LaPuma.
Programmable thermostats make it easy to control the temperature of your home when it is unoccupied. Consider bumping up the thermostat a few degrees in the summer and letting it fall a few degrees in the winter. The cost of a programmable thermostat varies, but owning one puts less demand on heating and cooling appliances, lowers your bills and cuts how much carbon your utility company burns.
Programmable thermostats can save up to 10%
on heating and cooling bills.1
Think of fresh water as the precious, limited resource that it is. Depending on how much you shorten your shower, you can save hundreds of gallons of water per month. By making the water a bit cooler, you'll use less energy to heat it, which will decrease your carbon footprint.
By monitoring the water temperature, you can minimize the work of your water heater and cut in half the amount of energy required for a load of laundry. Reducing the energy needed to increase the temperature in your water heater translates to less demand from the utility that powers the appliance. Less energy production means less carbon fuels burned and fewer emissions into the atmosphere.
Clothes dryers are one of the most energy-consumptive appliances in the home. When you give your dryer the day off, your laundry benefits from the free, stain-fighting and sanitizing power of the sun, and your energy utility burns less carbon-emitting fuel. By running your dryer at maximum efficiency, on lower heat settings and free of lint, you minimize carbon-generating energy needs with each load.
4% of household electricity
is used by dryers.2
LEED homes — houses with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification — pass high standards for efficient energy and water use. Installing appliances and plumbing fixtures that sip water and electricity reduces overall consumption. The day-to-day savings add up to a marked decrease in your carbon footprint and cost of living.
Clean sources of energy such as solar and wind power are renewable and can be replaced naturally — unlike gasoline, natural gas, coal and fossil fuels. "If everybody made this selection, it would encourage a large-scale transition to renewable resources," said McCormick. "Choosing renewable energy is low-hanging fruit that could have a major impact." Ask your utility company how to opt in to renewable energy.
of consumers have the option to select power from a renewable source.3
Products certified by the Environmental Protection Agency meet strict efficiency standards and use less power than noncertified competitors. The Natural Resources Defense Council rates dryers as the energy vampires of the appliance world, with refrigerators close behind.4 But reducing your carbon footprint doesn't have to mean a return to the dark ages. Replacing old and inefficient appliances with EPA-certified models costs more up front but saves money and power over the long run.
Using power strips or unplugging idle electronics can help avoid the “vampire load,” which is power consumed when electronics are turned off but still plugged into outlets. Unplugging electronics and appliances when not in use or using power strips. can help reduce this load. “Smart” power strip options can cost thousands, but standard versions run from $7 to $30.
The cost of power used even when appliances are turned off can add up to
Using green cleaning products can help reduce health and environmental concerns that come with harsh chemical agents.5 Vinegar, a natural odor-remover, can also kill or reduce some pathogens.6 Labels can help consumers identify environmentally friendly cleaning products, such as those certified through the EPA’s Safer Choice and Design for the Environment programs.7 And opting for concentrated detergents and cleaners also reduces packaging for cleaning substances.
Indoor air pollutants can be
two to five times higher than outdoor pollutant levels8
Bamboo does not require pesticides or fertilizer, reducing the amount of chemicals in the atmosphere. Bamboo can be replenished more quickly and releases more oxygen into the environment compared with trees. This can help reduce erosion and improve soil quality, so choose bamboo flooring for new construction or when replacing an old floor.
A bamboo grove releases 35% more oxygen
than a similar-sized group of trees9
Consider organic linens, upholstery and other textiles — such as organic sheets, wool blankets and natural kitchen towels — instead of non-organic materials like polyester. Organic materials are made without pesticides or synthetic chemicals, which can harm the environment when used in farming. The Global Organic Textile Standard10 can help you learn more about organic products and certification.
Since 1992, U.S. law requires that new toilets be low-flow or low-flush, which use 1.6 gallons or less of water per flush. Some newer low-flush toilets use less than 1.28 gallons per flush. Older homes can update to a low-flush toilet to reduce water use and save more than $140 annually compared with inefficient toilets.11
Replacing inefficient toilets with low-flush versions can save 13,000 gallons of water a year for the average family.12
The average family uses about 40 gallons of water per day for showers, which accounts for about 17 percent of an average home’s water use. While standard showerheads use about 2.5 gallons of water per minute, showerheads marked with the EPA’s WaterSense label use two gallons of water or less per minute.13
The "last mile" — the final leg from production to consumer — used to mean the trip from the store to your home. Now, single items take that journey in delivery trucks and vans. To practice sustainable shopping online, click "purchase" only after your shopping cart is stocked, and select the slower option to ship your packages together. For bonus points, pick up your packages at a centrally located delivery center while you're already out running errands.
In 2019 the transportation sector generated
the largest share of carbon emissions in the United States.14
Finding clothes, appliances and furnishings ready for their next act has never been easier. Online classified sections, social networking sites and thrift stores are great ways to save quality items from the landfill. You'll reduce carbon emissions that are created during the production of new items and save money.
Recycling significantly reduces carbon emissions. But failing to properly sort your recyclables can undo all the effort. Keep trash and recyclables separate: The work it takes to separate household garbage from recycling can reduce energy savings.
One ton of recycled plastic saves
5,774 kWh of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTUs of energy, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space.15
Reading up on companies’ commitments to sustainability can help you better understand how green their practices and partners are before you buy from them. Look to sources such as the company’s sustainability statement, information about its supply chain, reputable green certifications the company holds, or the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for public companies. Lists of most sustainable companies in different industries, such as those written by Forbes, Barron’s or Corporate Knights, can also help you determine whether a company is invested in eco-friendly practices.
The EPA’s Top 30 Retail Partners in 2021 used
6.7 billion kilowatt hours of green power.16
Before buying an article of clothing, use the “30 wears test”: Ask yourself whether you would wear the piece at least 30 times. If the answer is yes, add it to your shopping cart. Additionally, instead of buying 60 less expensive and less sustainable pieces each year, reduce your consumption by investing in 10–30 high-quality pieces that have been made sustainably.17
Instead of purchasing a new clothing item to wear a limited number of times — particularly for events — consider using a rental service. Rental fashion contributes to the circular economy, which helps maximize resources and minimize waste. Sharing wardrobes through rental fashion services can help keep unwanted items out of landfills.18
Many returned items actually end up in landfills,19 rather than being resold.20 Try not to order multiple sizes of clothing or several options for an event, choosing the best one and returning the others (a tactic known as “bracket shopping”). Shipping items back and forth also creates additional carbon costs, so avoiding this practice can reduce the impact on landfills and the atmosphere.
For a do-it-yourself approach to maintaining your wardrobe, repair clothing and accessories to help them last longer and extend the life of your clothes. Rather than tossing out damaged items in favor of buying new ones, try mending your clothes. Hiring a professional tailor to repair damaged garments is another option that may be more costly but can save time.21
Making the plastics that are found in many tampons and pads requires energy-intensive processes.22 Opting for sustainable period products, such as reusable pads, menstrual cups, tampons without plastic applicators and reusable underwear, can help girls and women reduce the environmental impact from both the production and disposal of menstrual products.23
The ready availability of all food year-round requires an industry that transports fresh produce and meat across thousands of miles. Buy from local farmers, brewers, vintners and other purveyors to cut the carbon cost of transportation by eating and drinking what is ripe and available in your region. You are likely to get fresher, more delicious food and beverages that traveled fewer miles to get to you.
of U.S. lettuce, a plant that can be grown seasonally in every hardiness zone in the country, is grown almost exclusively in California or Arizona.24 25
Minimize the amount of packaging your food comes in, and opt for reusable bottles, bags and food storage. LaPuma gives this advice: “The best rule of thumb is to get rid of anything disposable in your life,” like plastic bags and cutlery, gum and diapers. Each layer of plastic and cardboard between you and the thing you consume takes energy to produce and contributes to waste that will take hundreds of years to decompose.
Planting a garden is one activity that allows you to shrink a growing carbon footprint while increasing your activity and intake of fresh vitamins and minerals. Plants, bushes and trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air, meaning your backyard hobby can reduce the amount of gas already in the environment. According to LaPuma, “When it comes to food, you’re going to benefit most when you know what went into it and when you grow your own.”
The energy used to harvest, process and transport food is squandered when it is discarded. Although more social programs seek to offset food excess through donations, each of us can reduce the outlay of resources and carbon emissions by buying only what we will eat.
Up to 40% of all food in the United States ends up in the trash.26
Supporting restaurants that are making ecologically healthy decisions is a great way to spend your dining dollars. By frequenting businesses that buy and prepare seasonal produce, you support local farmers whose carbon outlay is much smaller because they don’t have to transport their produce long distances.
Meat production is a major contributor to carbon emissions, and cutting meat out of your diet is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint as an individual. Eating a more plant-based diet, cutting out red meat, becoming vegetarian or going vegan can go a long way in reducing your impact. Meal planning and preparation can make it easier to set aside days to eat lower on the food chain.
of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production.27
Composting saves space in landfills, and the process goes hand-in-hand with gardening. Build your own compost container by drilling holes in a trash bin, or purchase a composter to discard food scraps and other organic materials. After it breaks down during the course of several months, compost can be added to your garden to boost your soil’s nutrient and water retention.
When carrying out food from restaurants, aim to reduce the amount of paper and plastic products you take with you. Using fewer plastic utensils, disposable straws and napkins, as well as supporting restaurants that use recyclable or compostable takeout containers, can help reduce the amount of food packaging in landfills. If you’re able to use your own utensils and plates, ask restaurants not to include cutlery when you order your food.
Food and food packaging account for about
45% of materials in landfills.28
Fermenting, dehydrating and freezing fresh produce can make food last longer, particularly for those who grow their own food in gardens and may have more produce than they can immediately eat. Taking these simple steps to preserve food can help keep it out of landfills and reduce overfarming, thereby reducing carbon emissions from agriculture and from food waste.
Distracted eating is often easier than taking in your meal with all the senses. However, dining slowly and paying attention to how and what you’re eating may help you assess the impact of food on your body and the planet. Taking smaller portions and savoring your food may also help reduce the amount of food wasted from your plate.
Maintaining your engine, keeping your tires properly inflated, using the correct motor oil weight and having a clean air filter can each save a few cents per gallon, according to the EPA.29 Some or all of these steps are simple enough to do yourself. For those with more money than time, a mechanic can take care of it all. By burning less gas per mile, you decrease carbon emissions from your fuel-burning vehicle. A happy side effect: longer-lasting tires and engines.
You can save as much as 20 cents per gallon
by making sure your vehicle is tuned and ready for the road and by using the recommended fuel grade.30
Using less gasoline reduces or eliminates the average 4.6 tons of carbon emitted by a typical U.S. passenger vehicle per year.31 With a plug-in vehicle, motorists select renewable power from their utility company to charge a car. Whether you select a hybrid or fully electric vehicle, the return on this investment means burning less fossil fuel.
Burn less fossil fuel and more calories by walking or biking to work. Committing to a bike commute, even a few days a week, can reduce the mileage on your car and gallons of gasoline used. Trips that can be made on bike or by foot will reduce your carbon footprint. If your commute is too long, try setting up a carpool or consider public transportation.
For short trips, drive or take the train, particularly in the Northeast corridor where traffic is dense and trains service many locations. If you can’t fly less, choose a nonstop flight or chip in for carbon offsets that are often made available through airlines.
One cross-country flight generates about one-eighteenth of the average American's carbon emission output per year.32
Opting out of changing your linens can make a difference in reducing water consumption at lodging facilities. During your stays at hotels, shared housing and other lodging facilities, don’t request new towels or sheets unless needed to reduce the loads of laundry your hotel must run.
Laundry accounts for 16% of water usage at hotels.33
Staying close to home and exploring your own backyard is one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint when traveling.34 If you choose to travel farther, search for a destination that makes a strong commitment to sustainability.35
Before booking a tour or activity while on vacation, research the provider to ensure they prioritize sustainability. Choose activities with minimal environmental impacts, and opt for local tour operators that prioritize sustainable practices, such as eco-friendly transportation, using electronic instead of printed resources or donating proceeds toward sustainable causes.36
When exploring the outdoors, practice Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, including staying on trails, disposing of waste properly and respecting wildlife.37 Over time, small actions like traveling off trails or littering can disrupt fragile ecosystems, such as alpine and desert environments, and ultimately kill plant life that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.