Dr. Rachael Shwom, Associate Director of the Rutgers Energy Institute, compares reducing your carbon footprint to going on a diet. It’s really hard to be perfect on a diet. In reality, if you ask someone to cut out all the junk food, they’ll probably give up on the whole diet idea all together. They might be more successful if you tell them to prioritize their calories and their eating decisions. If they really want to eat that piece of cake, they’ll need to eat really well the rest of the day.
Your “diet” in this scenario is all the things you do on a daily basis that emit carbon (how you travel, what you eat, what powers your home, what you do for fun). If someone asked you to give up all carbon-emitting activities you’d probably get so stressed that in the end you’d do nothing. “Those trade-offs are really significant,” says Dr. Shwom, “They’re really at the heart of the meaning of life for a lot of people.” What is your cake? What will you give up to keep eating it?
According to 2018 data from the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado is lagging behind the rest of the United States in terms of reducing carbon emissions. Our residential emissions are down 1% from 2005 to 2015, but nationwide residential emissions are down 12%. Over all categories, Colorado only lowered emissions by 5% compared to a nationwide reduction of 11% in that same ten year time frame. Our statewide goal is to reduce emissions over 26% by 2025. We will need to do a lot more in the next six years than we have been to meet that goal.
At an individual level, there are steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint right away and others that take a longer commitment.
Actions to Take Right Away
Use a carbon calculator to determine what part of your life is causing the most carbon emissions. From there you can begin to plan your next eco-friendly steps. The Nature Conservancy website has an easy-to-use calculator that will give you tips based on your results.
Make small gestures at home a habit. Turning off lights when you leave a room, or the faucet while brushing your teeth, are not new concepts, but once you do it enough, it will become second nature and you’ll no longer have to think about it.
Switch to a vegan diet, or at least eat less red meat and dairy, which account for one third of all food emissions. Chicken and vegetable production have up to ten times smaller carbon footprint. Up the ante by shopping for only local produce. In counting CO2 emissions, you have to consider the whole supply chain. The distance the food traveled to get to your plate is a factor.
Be smarter about your indoor water use. Washing your clothes in cold water and fixing leaking pipes are things you can do right now.
Reduce indoor energy use by hang drying your clothes or switching to energy efficient lights bulbs (an act that seems easy enough but one that Dr. Shwom says still gets a decent amount of push back). Reduce drafts in your home by caulking and weather-stripping seams.
Actions to Take Over Time
Changing your driving habits will significantly reduce the amount of carbon you emit into the atmosphere. According to RTD’s Quality of Life Report, vehicle miles traveled by Colorado residents increased 13.5% between 2006 and 2016. This is attributed to an 18% population increase, 1.7 million new jobs, and a 27% increase in new homes. Any way you can find that will keep your car off the road as much as possible will make a huge difference (and it will reduce congestion). That can include biking, walking, carpooling, taking public transportation, or working remotely.
Start recycling (or keep at it). You’ve probably heard about China refusing to take America’s leftover plastic recyclables, which might cause you to question whether or not recycling is actually happening. Bridget Johnson, owner of Longmont’s Green Girl Recycling, wants you to know that it absolutely is happening, especially in Boulder County. “Boulder, I would wage, has one of the best MRFs [Material Recovery Facility] in the whole nation,” she says. In her over 20 years in the industry, Johnson has seen many American mills close down as our recycling was exported to China. But she’s optimistic that the industry will start to rebound, “I see there’s a trend for sure, of more mills reopening all across the United States. But I’d give it another year or two.”
And Green Girl Recycling, by the way, has a mission to truly make recycling easy. With them, you have no excuse not to recycle. They’ll shred and bale your sensitive documents, find new life for your hard to recycle products (books, styrofoam, bicycle inner tubes), handle your electronics and wipe the hard drive (if you can unplug it, they’ll recycle it), and they’ll come to your mountain home in a blizzard if they have to. If you think something is destined for the landfill, try giving Green Girl a call first. “I just love helping people make good decisions,” says Johnson.
Use less stuff. If we use less all around, industries will produce less and emit less carbon into the atmosphere. “As a professional recycler,” says Alex Richardson, an employee at Green Girl Recycling, “I think everybody should just reduce and then we wouldn’t have a job.” From reusable sandwich bags and coffee mugs to washable feminine hygiene products and medical grade earwax cleaners (say goodbye to Q-Tips), reusable products have become more inventive and durable.
Ditch fast-fashion. Part of using less includes fashion spending habits. Clothing stores like Forever 21 and H&M have made clothing so cheap that it’s easy to become addicted to staying on trend. Choose to shop at thrift stores or with high-end companies that construct products that will last in your closet for a long time. Companies like Darn Tough and Patagonia offer lifetime repairs on their products, so even a rip won’t land their clothes in the landfill.
You’ve probably already planned and purchased your tickets for your summer vacation, but it’s not too early to start thinking about efficient holiday travelling. The aviation industry accounts for 11% of all transportation-related emissions. It’s no surprise that an airplane generates more CO2 emissions than a car (they use more fuel), but when to choose a car over a plane is not so cut and dry. For relatively short flights or flights that require a layover, it is more efficient to drive. However, long distance, non-stop flights can be more fuel efficient (and time efficient) than driving across country.
Engineers are working hard to make sure that flying becomes more fuel efficient. The Federal Aviation Administration and their CLEEN II partners have invested $200 million in developing technologies that reduce fuel consumption and emissions with the goal of reducing aircraft carbon dioxide emissions by 650 million metric tons between 2020 and 2040 under their NextGen innovation plan. Some of these fuel-efficient planes are already on the market, like the A320Neo (which requires 15% less fuel burn) and the Boeing 737 Max (which is currently grounded while Boeing makes some operational fixes, but reports 12% less fuel burn).
If you want a totally environmentally friendly vacation, nothing will ever beat a stay-cation. A short drive to the Rocky Mountains will always be more environmentally friendly than a transatlantic flight to Spain.
Reduce outdoor water use. Spring is the perfect time to examine your garden water use. Start by checking for broken sprinkler heads. Consider installing a drip line and choosing plants that require little water. Washing your car at a facility that recycles water is even more efficient than hand washing it in your lawn.
Reduce during the holidays. Americans create 25% more trash during the holidays. Gift and gift wraps, disposible foods or increased fast foods when you’re low on time, and all the other ways we make a mess around the holidays can be fixed or mitigated. Lower your impact by giving experience gifts (like a cooking class or movie tickets) rather than material goods.
Have one fewer kid? A radical study published out of Lund University in Sweden used a life cycle assessment approach to determine choices individuals could make to have the biggest impact on reducing their carbon footprint. “Have one fewer kid” ranked as having the highest impact, meaning to reduce your child-bearing plans (not getting rid of kids you already have). The logic makes sense, as having a child would equate to another life emitting carbon, but there are some flaws in the study’s approach to delegating carbon emissions. For example, it does not take adoption into consideration. Also, raise material conscious kids.
Get educated. Climate and environmental scientists continue to study human impacts on Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a complex subject that we will continue to learn more about as time goes on. The Boulder County CSU Extension offers courses and lectures on many topics including rain barrel usage, growing food at home, organic pest control, composting, and home energy production—all things that will reduce your carbon footprint. Eco-Cycle, a non-profit recycler in Boulder County, offers classes to become an Eco-Leader to help spread the word of Zero Waste living.
Dr. Shwom spends a lot of time researching how and why people react to climate change. The truth is, the society we’ve built makes it really hard to live an eco-friendly life. “The way our lives are organized,” says Dr. Shwom, “you get up, go to work, and your kids go off to school. The routines of our lives don’t leave room and are not organized around doing things in a more climate friendly way.” If you are going to make a commitment to reducing your carbon footprint, it is going to take a little bit of work.