We’ve all seen the news about Beijing’s unbreathable air, the garbage islands of plastic and styrofoam in the middle of the ocean, and the awful PETA.xxx videos of cattle and chickens being mercilessly crammed into cages and slaughtered. It makes all of us cringe and balk, but let’s be real; very few of us are going to feel enough guilt to sell our cars, stop getting take out or even say no to bacon and pepperoni pizza. This doesn’t make us sociopaths, it just means we value our conveniences. I’d be lying if I said “there’s no harm in that,” but we can try to make cognizant choices when it comes to consumption. Here are a few, mostly easy tips for becoming “part of the solution” instead of “part of the problem,”AKA moving yourself to the right side of Earth’s own Naughty/Nice list.
1. Eat less red meat (+4 points)
Beyond the moral hazards, raising farm animals requires more space, resources and energy than any other kind of food production. By far. Farm animals and their production also creates a large amount of green-house gases. I opt for seafood when possible. It’s healthier anyway. (For an extra 2 points, make sure that it’s sustainably harvested. Eating overfished species or seafood that is caught using nets that scrape the bottom and kill coral is also bad.) If you need some support to ween off of your carnivorous habits, join the Meatless Mondays movement and start from there.
2. When buying meat, dairy and produce, look for words like “free range,” “organic” and “no hormones” (+2 points)
You may not save money, but you can eat with a clear conscience knowing that you’re doing the world a small favor. No need to go Portlandia on everyone, but human-made pesticides and fertilizers require energy and resources to be manufactured and distributed, pollute air, soil, and water and have been shown to be carcinogenic in many cases (cancer-causing). Vegetables that are grown without those pesticides and fertilizers require less fossil energy to be grown, pollute less and are far less likely to cause any health issues.
3. Keep re-usable bags in your car for trips to the grocery store (+ 3 points) and if you forget, always use paper (+1 point)
This is something we all intend to do but then realize we’ve forgotten the bag as we’re on our way to the grocery store, etc. Let’s break this down: As of 2008, over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide, and a single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Even then, plastic bags remain toxic even after they break down. If it winds up in the ocean, which an estimated 10% of plastic produced does, it never degrades. Use plastic bag anyway: -3 points.
4. Drink tap water (+3 points)
Let’s be honest, unless you live in a city where tap water is unsafe (that rules out pretty much all of North America), your tap water is just fine to drink. Tap water is regulated by the EPA, which has stricter standards than the FDA, which regulates bottled water. Drinking tap water reduces the amount of plastic you consume, and a gallon of any beverage other than water requires many more gallons of water to be made. Plants for juices need water; tea and coffee plants need water; milk comes from cows that need a lot of water. And if you just NEED your (fill in the designer water bottle brand here) because it tastes so much better than other water, think for a second about how ridiculous that sounds and then ask if it’s worth contributing to the plastic waste pandemic. And losing 3 points. Get a Brita and stop whining.
5. Bring an empty water bottle to the airport when traveling (+1 point)
And remember to fill it up at a fountain after going through security. This way, you won’t have to wait for the drink carts to pass through and will also reduce the amount of plastic you consume.
6. Turn off your car engine while idle (+3 points)
If you are going to be standing still for longer than 30 seconds, turn off the engine. For every two minutes a car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go about one mile. Yes, it takes more gas to start the car than to leave it on, but not that much more, and since when does your friend ever just take “one min” while you’re waiting in the car outside. Idling is basically a big “F You” to the environment. Save your gas money, improve your fuel economy and pollute less. Keep idling: -3 points.
7. Only run full loads of laundry/dishes and use cold water (+2 points)
Pressing the hot/warm button on your washing machine has the same approximate environmental impact as driving 9 miles in a car. Year-round washing adds up quickly, so ask yourself if the dirty items really require warm or hot water. Unless your clothes/dishes are really filthy and stained, they will get just as clean on a cold water setting. Plus, your brightly colored clothing will hold its color better. Also, running these machines only when a full load is ready will not only save water, but also electricity and soap (aka your $$).
8. RECYCLE. Especially aluminum (+4 points)
My friend Kate who ran sustainability initiatives at Harvard Law School told me something that has stuck: Making new aluminum cans from used cans takes 95 percent less energy than mining virgin ore. Another way of looking at it: 20 recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can from scratch. Some cities hire people to sift through your garbage and pick out recyclable materials. Other cities fine you if you don’t do it yourself. Yes, it’s that important. Always, always recycle. Fish an aluminum can out of the garbage somewhere and recycle it: +5 points.
9. Use a power strip for all your electronics and unplug it when you leave the house or go to sleep (+2 points)
Power strips are those super useful things that turn one wall outlet into 6-10 more outlets! The Octomom of household appliances. They cost about $10 at any drugstore and will save you that much on your energy bill pretty quickly if you follow the above recommendation.
10. Specify no utensils when ordering takeout (+2 points) and actually eat everything you order (+2 points)
If you’re bringing it home, chances are you have your own fork and it’s more effective than the plastic one you’d get with your pad thai. Also, DO NOT order more than you will eat. Clean your plate and save leftovers to eat later. A recent study showed that 50% of all food produced is wasted, which is horrifying. Not to mention, food waste in landfills breaks down inorganically and produces methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.