7 Easy Ways to Reduce Your Family’s Carbon Footprint

The thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not. Like, I could peer over the rocks of the Grand Canyon and proclaim that gravity is fake news, but if I lose my balance and fall into the wide-open mouth of that North Rim, I’m gonna die.

Climate change is real, even if some people don’t want to admit it. And we all have it within our power to make a difference by reducing our family’s carbon footprint. When we talk about becoming more “eco-friendly” or “going green,” what we’re talking about is shrinking our carbon footprint.

Your carbon footprint, according to The Nature Conservancy, is “the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by [your] actions.” Everything you do either directly or indirectly that creates waste or pollutes the environment contributes to your carbon footprint. It’s virtually impossible to bring your footprint to zero, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking steps to make your impact on the environment smaller.

The Work We Already Do

“After registering unusually high temperatures across the globe, May 2020 tied with 2016 as the world’s warmest May on record,” according to scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “The heat wasn’t just limited to May. The three-month season (March through May) and the year to date (January through May) ranked second-warmest in the 141-year global record.”

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Most of us know we need to make changes, and many of us have already begun making over our routines to be more eco friendly. Maybe you’ve ditched bottled water in favor of a reusable tumbler, or you bring reusable bags to the store instead of putting your groceries into plastic ones. Better yet, you might have said “sayonara” to plastic straws – I mean, why not when there are so many fun reusable straws you can use?

And I bet you recycle if it’s available in your area. That one’s a no-brainer!

The great thing about all these swaps is that they’re pretty painless. It’s not much of a burden to carry some shopping bags with you, is it? But many of us get stuck when we try to go a step further beyond those popular changes. So here are 7 more ideas to reduce your carbon footprint without losing your mind. They’re easy, inexpensive, and you’ll feel good knowing you’re doing your part to save the planet.

7 Easy Swaps

#1: Buy used books instead of new ones.

“Every year we trash more than 16,000 truckloads of books that were never even read once,” according to sustainable book publishing company TCK. “That’s enough books to fill both the British Library and the Library of Congress twice.” Kind of wasteful, don’t you think? Paper production is the third-largest user of fossil fuel production worldwide, and 2 billion books are published in the U.S. every single year.

Yikes. What can we do?

The most eco-friendly option is to go paper-free with digital books on Kindle or listen to books on Audible. But if you’re old-school like me, you love the smell and feel of physical books. There’s something special about curling up in my favorite chair with a good read, and I can’t quite get there with the digital variety.

If you, too, crave that paperback scent, buy used! In many cases, previously-read books are still in great shape, but they’re cheaper than buying new. If you’re shopping for books on Amazon, you can buy used copies directly from their website. You can even see details about the book’s condition, where it’s shipping from, and who’s selling it.

Once you’re done with your copy, pass it along to a friend to keep the eco-friendly chain going instead of perching it on a shelf where it’ll collect dust.

#2: Use cloth napkins instead of paper.

Paper napkins are convenient, but think about this: If a family of four uses napkins at each meal, that’s more than 350 paper napkins in the trash each month! Luckily, switching to reusable cloth napkins is incredibly easy. My family swapped paper napkins for cloth ones a couple of years ago, and we’ve noticed that in addition to being great for the environment, meals feel more special (they remind us of fancy restaurant meals). They add elegant pops of color to our dinner table, too.

Pro tip: Let each family member choose their own color or pattern. This way, you’ll know which napkins belong to whom. Color-coded napkins are especially helpful when you (inevitably) find abandoned napkins on the table that might be clean enough to reuse at the next meal.

Photo by Maria Ilves on Unsplash

At first, I was worried all these cloth napkins would mean more loads of laundry, but get real: moms do thousands of loads every week anyway; what’re a few more pieces of fabric in the washing machine?!

Similarly, I was wary about having to fold them for storage. Everyone knows folding is THE WORST part of doing laundry. Instead, I got a cute basket to keep the napkins in. I toss them into the basket without folding them, and I’m not sorry. The basket sits on the counter near the table, and everyone takes a napkin before sitting down to eat. In fact, my 3-year-old’s favorite “job” is to set napkins out for everyone. It’ a simple and easy task he can do all by himself.

#3: Shop local for produce.

Photo by Thomas Le on Unsplash

Instead of buying your fruits and veggies after they’ve traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles from the farm to your grocery store, check your local farms, markets, and CSAs for hometown-grown eats. I live in Illinois, where I can find locally-grown asparagus in the spring, apples in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall, plus a host of other in-season crops.

To be fair, this isn’t always reasonable. If you live in the midwest, as I do, there’s no such thing as local avocados. That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up my guacamole addiction anytime soon, but as with many efforts to reduce your carbon footprint, making some changes is much better than doing nothing.

I’m not ready to stop buying frozen steam-in-the-bag broccoli for busy nights when I need to get dinner on the table PRONTO, and sometimes stocking up on fresh local produce can backfire if it goes bad before you get a chance to eat it. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to support your local farmers when you can!

#4: Eat less meat.

By now, it’s common knowledge that meat production – specifically beef – is terrible for the environment. Raising cows generates enormous amounts of methane gas, which is detrimental to the Earth’s precious ozone layer. It also requires a lot of water, land, and feed we could use for other purposes.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

There’s no need to go vegan – or even vegetarian – unless you want to. Merely cutting down on the amount of meat your family eats can make a difference. Instead of thinking about reducing your family’s meat consumption as eating LESS meat, frame it in a positive way; think of it as eating MORE plants. Besides, veggies are great for you. As author and Harvard professor Michael Pollan famously said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

According to Greenpeace, “shifting to more plant-based foods is essential to combatting climate change, soil, air and water pollution, ocean dead zones, and myriad other problems caused by industrial livestock production. If we decide to eat fewer meals with meat or dairy each week, we can have a huge impact on our collective health and the health of the planet.”

#5: Opt for reusable sandwich bags instead of plastic.

It seems like I’m bagging up leftovers after every meal thanks to my pint-sized picky eaters, which means I’m going through a dozen or so Ziplock bags every week. By switching to reusable sandwich bags (like these, from Stasher), I can nix that habit. It’s a bit of an investment upfront, but these babies will pay for themselves in no time. Plus, they’re dishwasher safe, so I don’t have to spend time washing them myself. Win-win.

#6: Swap incandescent lights for LED.

LED lightbulbs last about 50,000 hours. That’s more than TEN YEARS. The old incandescent bulbs? They last a measly 1,000 hours – or about a year.

Photo by Federico Bottos on Unsplash

Aside from the hassle of replacing burnt-out lightbulbs every year, using non-energy-efficient bulbs costs more because they use more energy every hour they’re on. “If all Americans replaced their inefficient light bulbs with ENERGY STAR certified LED bulbs, we would save 1.5 billion dollars in annual energy bills, and prevent 17 billion pounds of annual carbon pollution,” according to Energy Star.

LED bulbs use up to 90% less energy than standard lightbulbs and can save $55 in energy costs over their lifetimes. They also produce less heat, which can be helpful on those hot summer days.

#7: Switch to reusable batteries.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

The average family burns through 47 alkaline batteries every year. “But you could buy just 12 rechargeable batteries every four years (the average life span of some popular rechargeable batteries) instead of the 188 disposables you would otherwise need,” according to a June 2019 New York Times article. “And you wouldn’t lose much performance: The best rechargeables can power your devices on a single charge for just as long as most high-quality single-use batteries can but at a fraction of the cost over time.”

A 12-pack of rechargeable AAA batteries ($13.49) – plus the charger ($17.33) – will run you around $31 on Amazon, whereas 12 regular AAA batteries of the same brand would cost about $7.50 (prices are as of June 19, 2020). But if the reusable kind lasts you four years, as the NYT piece figured, you’d go through 176 fewer batteries and save a whopping $89.

The money-saving effect of switching to reusable batteries is good, but the positive environmental impact is even more impressive. “Most people don’t realize the extent of single-use batteries’ environmental impacts,” says One Green Planet. “Heavy metals, corrosive materials, and other nasty chemicals combined with (all-too-common) improper disposal spells bad news for the environment. But rechargeables have 28 times less impact on global warming, 30 times less impact on air pollution, 9 times less impact on air acidification, and 12 times less impact on water pollution!”

Spread the Word

You might be wondering what change one family (yours) could realistically make by embracing any or all of these changes. What good could your use of fewer lightbulbs, batteries, or plastic baggies REALLY bring to the world?

Not much, really.

But what if you shared these ideas with a couple of friends, who shared them with a couple more, and so on? What if hundreds of us – or even thousands or hundreds of thousands of families – implemented a few of these changes? THEN what good could we do?

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Helen Keller

What changes has your family made – or plans to make – to reduce your carbon footprint?


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