5 Strategies For Shrinking Your Carbon Footprint
Last Updated on March 30, 2021
This is the second installment of a six part series, Becoming Sustainably Motivated. The series is meant to offer some insight and encouragement towards adopting a sustainable lifestyle.
Part two focuses on reducing our individual carbon footprint. Explore all six to help find and develop your own sustainable motivation!
Cutting Down on Carbon
So, how do we go about changing the world? Changing our own habits is a great place to start! These habits are reflected in your carbon footprint, a reference to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by our actions (click here to gauge yours). You might also have seen this depicted as your ecological footprint, which is the measure of how much nature we need to use up or displace in order to satisfy our needs.
These numbers are especially and unsustainably high in much of the developed world. To the extent that we would need multiple Earths to meet human consumption demands if the rest of the world consumed anywhere near to that of the US & Canada (see Use It and Lost It). We are using too much, too quickly and endangering ourselves and many of the other species that share this planet with us.
At this rate, we are certainly jeopardizing the earth for our children and all the generations to come. For those of you who feel equally concerned and alarmed by this, there are steps we can be taking immediately. I’ve begun by listing 5 Strategic Tips for reducing your individual carbon footprint.
1. Understand Your Consumption
Conscious consumerism is key. Yes, we need things, but do we really, really need things? Controlling what we purchase provides a fundamental component of sustainable living.
The Story of Stuff (video below) does an excellent job of connecting the dots between industrial intent and individual consumption. Furthermore, the group has since grown into an online community that helps people better understand the impact of our consumption. So much of what we use happens behind the scenes, that it’s difficult to genuinely grasp all the effects and consequences.
Still, we have the power to choose differently. The Story of Stuff reminds us that things aren’t making us any happier as a society (on the contrary). We can however find happiness through discovering the other elements that truly satisfy us. Consumerism doesn’t fill the void, but we can still find satisfaction!
👉Prioritize the Long-Term
When we choose to adopt the sustainable mindset, we come to embrace different priorities, and give greater value to experiences over objects. Living with less stuff will certainly help when it comes to minimizing our impact.
It can also boost our personal finances and reduce the time we spend cleaning, maintaining, and organizing the things we do own. I’m certainly not preaching the need for everyone to suddenly adopt a minimalist lifestyle (good on you if you do!), but acknowledging this alternative will help contribute to the awareness of selective buying.
👉Use The Triple-Check Technique
Learning how to compost, recycle, and manage our waste is amazing, but it’s even easier when you don’t have to do it in the first place. These are the types of decisions we can make while still at the shopping mall or grocery store. We don’t have to give in to the compulsion of buying things simply because they’re discounted or appear to be a good value.
Why were we there in the first place, and do we truly want to bring all this stuff back into our homes? The old, “think before you buy,” was most likely a reference to spending, but it is equally pertinent with regards our consumption. Let’s call it the triple check technique.
👉Find Out What It’s Made Of
Another component is the carbon footprint of the individual item. What is its environmental cost with respect to fossil fuels and greenhouse gases? Consider both what’s in your product, as well as the packaging.
Plastic and petroleum based products take a heavy toll on the environment. Indeed, plastics have come to permeate society, the soil, and our oceans. Thankfully, alternatives are being developed (see Getting Past The Plastic), but we can do our part by selecting and encouraging alternatives.
2. Selective Shopping
Some best practices when contemplating a purchase include buying (and supporting) local, selecting items with minimal packaging, and avoiding disposable (single-serve) plastics when possible. You can also try opting for a larger format item, rather than those that are individually wrapped and packaged.
For example, snack items like yogurt, nuts, raisins, or even juice which can all be purchased in larger quantities and then divvied up into smaller containers if need be. When selecting those items, another positive approach includes choosing (supporting) organic items when possible.
It Adds Up
These are all great techniques. The cynics might not think your individual actions can make a positive contribution to combating climate change, but it really does (see Rumi’s Wisdom).
Your individual actions are part of the larger paradigm shift taking place, and every win counts. Conscious shopping is key! Cutting down on what ends up in the landfill on the one hand, and encouraging sustainable practices on the other.
Of these conscious shopping methods, buying local is potentially the most impactful. You are cutting down on your carbon footprint significantly if and when you have this option available to you.
Anytime you purchase something that didn’t have to travel across oceans or the continent is already pretty awesome, and encouraging the organic producers that support the soil and water is straight-up wonderful!
Do Some Research
When considering a new purchase, try and look-up before hand what the product specs are. We are lucky to have so much information now available to us, that we can be better equipped to buy what’s right for us and the environment. Product reviews and customer feedback can be a great source of info, as you can discover more about the item before making a commitment.
Ask Yourself, Do You Really Love It?
Finally, buying only what you need and love, what gives you joy, will also help manage your need for space. I learnt this one from Marie Kondo, who teaches her KonMari method for decluttering and becoming more selective with your possessions. Her style is based on a Japanese philosophy that suggests retaining only that which gives you happiness (her seminal book is titled Spark Joy).
As she, and many other organizational consultants have professed, we really don’t need such large homes! Despite house sizes increasing steadily over the years (particularly in North America), they are also becoming increasingly and unnecessarily packed, from basements to that attic (and garages), with things that we don’t use that often, if at all. Learning how to curb our consumption is therefore a critical first step on the path to sustainability.
3. Reconsider Driving
When I speak of the negative impact of driving, I’m certainly not referring to the genuine pleasure and sense of freedom that some might take from the act itself. Rather, the issue is with the pollution. The automobile has certainly afforded our species countless liberties, and I fully comprehend the personal sense of wonder and exploration that can potentially enthuse drivers.
I can also appreciate that there are those out there that feel the call for a road-trip, or the desire to test their skills and become professional race car drivers. Without a doubt, it can be exhilarating! Driving itself need not be the environmental culprit.
Question “It’s What We Do”
However, for the vast majority of the population who can afford it, driving has simply become the norm for getting around. We go through the motions and acquire the license, buy a car, and use it for our daily commute.
It’s become an automatic process. It’s what our parents, friends, and neighbors have done. Naturally, we emulate those around us, and can possibly feel judged if we don’t follow suit. This habitual process has placed a terrible burden on our lives, our cities, and the planet.
A Costly Enterprise
The amount of resources required to build and maintain a vehicle, combined with the fact that the vast majority still do run on fossil fuels (despite the alternatives), and it is no surprise that finding alternative means of getting around will make a positive contribution towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Given the choice, try and substitute driving as your primary means of transport.
At the very least, I would encourage you to try not to drive alone, and cut back on the frequency of your usage. Doing so would already be putting you in better shape, carbon-wise. Think of it as a carbon competition, and the more you save the more you’ll want to save, feeding in to your own personal sustainability motivation.
4. Better Waste Management
While cutting out our trash entirely is the ideal, the present reality is such that most of us will still be generating garbage, so it’s important to consider what to do with it. Recycling and composting need to become part of the routine. It might seem tedious at first, but much like anything in life, it’s not as daunting once you actually do it! The key is to develop the habit. Once we develop the routine of washing out our containers and repurposing old items, it simply becomes second nature.
What I’m proposing shouldn’t come as a surprise, indeed throughout history (just look back to our grandparents) thrift and efficiency were prized. You washed your milk and jam jars, and you kept your bottles for use again. It’s unfortunate that the habit of labeling things as garbage took over with greater force as modern society drifted towards a throw-away culture (check out The Fixers Club).
This not need be the case!! There is no waste in nature, everything is constantly used and reused (see The Circular Economy), and we need to relearn how to live within nature’s means. But until that time, we can certainly attempt to cut down on what we do in fact throw away.
For added motivation, just take a look at the tremendous amount of trash we are throwing away, and what it does to people and the environment (check out the documentary Trashed). As a result, taking a closer look at what you toss away will definitely help you better understand your carbon footprint.
What’s in your trash?
Since first becoming conscious of the amount of garbage my family and I would throw out, we were able to dramatically reduce our trash by (1) changing certain purchasing habits, (2) composting, and finally (3) recycling and re-purposing.
We doubtlessly still have room for improvement, but we were already able to see the progress as we went from a large trash bag every garbage day (collection is twice a week), to one bag every 2.5 weeks.
That pretty much sums up the best practice for reducing your trash. Just get started. You don’t have to become trash-less overnight, simply work to be better than the day before.
5. Eat Less Meat
Another considerable means of reducing your carbon footprint is by eating less meat. The agricultural industry takes an immense toll on the planet, and if we’re able to simply reduce the amount of meat we consume, we’d be doing ourselves and the earth a valued service (see Huge Reduction in Meat-eating Essential to Avoid Climate Breakdown).
For those of you still eating meat regularly, I get it. I absolutely love to cook (and eat)! Preparing dishes with meat had pretty much been a staple in my home throughout my childhood. Cooking dinner and carving up meat went hand-in-hand. It took a lot of documentary viewing for me to finally get that it was time for a change.
La Casa Nostra
I come from an Italian family, and the sausage and cold cuts (prosciutto & salami are favorites), the meatballs, and meat sauces were near inseparable from family gatherings. But at some point, these meat dishes became the principal component of near every meal.
I came to realize that it felt like I wasn’t really eating unless there was meat on the plate, and it took years before I understood that this need not be the norm. I thought being vegan or vegetarian was an ideological choice, and that it was well enough for those that pursued it, but that it did not fit with my cultural upbringing.
Thankfully, I had the opportunity to travel, meet and eat with people from other cultures, learn more about the history of human eating habits, and eventually matured in my understanding. Historically, humans never ate the amount of meat we do in the modern North American diet.
Meat protein has literally saturated our cities, and I can pick up a hamburger, meat-lover’s pizza, or steak submarine in nearly any neighborhood, at all hours of the day or night, and for relatively little cost. Meat has come to dominate our meals, and is so ubiquitous that we might not even question it anymore.
Travel and exposure to other cuisines presented me with a number of alternatives right off the bat! Despite the current meat-centric norms, the status quo can change especially as well learn about alternatives. We can choose to dwindle our meat consumption, and we can do manage without necessarily going to extremes.
Sure change is difficult, and potentially scary, but nonetheless doable. My own family managed this by starting with at least one meat-free night per week (try MeatlessMondays). From there we gradually moved it up to two full days, with the intention of eventually hitting that majority milestone (aiming for 5).
Veggie It Up!
Other tips include combining more vegetables in recipes that require meat, and loading up with a variety of herbs and veggie colors (deliciousness), so that when we do decide to make a stew or fajitas we now use more veggies than meat.
We still keep us the same standards of tastiness, but we now opt for bean/lentil substitutes when we can, or try and use vegetables that’ll still provide the consistency we’re used to with meat (using eggplants, artichokes, or cauliflower for instance).
Lastly, when selecting meat, choosing chicken or rabbit over beef or lamb also makes a significant reduction in your ecological footprint. So there you have it, no need to swear off meat, at least not immediately, try instead to cut down and savor the experience as the special treat it is when it does come time to feast.
Bonus Tip – Learn from the Zero Waste Masters
Ultimately, the goal is to clean up our carbon footprint as much as possible as we try to reach a point of zero waste or carbon neutrality. Zero waste might seem like a near impossible objective, but if you take a look at what others have done (check this one out), it will certainly help you on your own quest for cutting carbon.
Leverage the Growing Movement
The zero waste movement is comprised of a philosophy that touches upon so of many of the covered points. Much of it stems from managing what you buy. It helps to make or repair what you can, and avoid all the extra plastics and trash that we have come to take for granted.
Admittedly, this is a tough go at first, but there are so many best practices out there for those motivated by it. When you start looking at life through this zero waste lens it can be a seriously transformative experience.
You Can Shrink Your Carbon Footprint!
Attempting to shrinking your personal carbon footprint is a great way to connect to with sustainability and better understand the movement to change the way we do things. The cynics will tell you that it won’t make much of an impact. Your individual carbon footprint is minimal in the grand scheme of things.
Think Global, Act Local
Your contribution is not insignificant! Our collective “not much” (see The Tragedy of the Commons) ultimately amounts to quite a bit. Of course, the big industrial players are the ones taking the lion’s share of the resources. But they are selling them to us. We do have power when we act collectively. It does however start with your own consumption. Understand what you use, and what needs to change. Together we can demand better.
Working together we can realize change. Boycotts and buying recommendation will only take us so far however. We need to combine this with simultaneously changing and influencing government policy. Government has the reach and responsibility for setting the terms to industry.
This can happen with investments and incentives for the sustainability transition, as well obviously restricting and taxing carbon emissions. As we work towards it, we can certainly definitely try to do what we can in our own everyday actions. As your sustainability awareness grows, you’ll find opportunity everywhere! With it you will discover your own sustainability motivation.