If you’re like me, you’ve always had a vague desire to do more for the planet. Except, at least for me, that desire is really only expressed when I decide to put my empty water bottle in the recycling bin. But there really is so much more you and I could do to lower our carbon footprint with just a smidgen of effort, and a little more knowledge. That’s why we’ve outlined 11 of the easiest ways to reduce carbon emissions at home, work, on the go and in the long-term.

What Is a Carbon Footprint, and Why Does It Matter?

A carbon footprint is the sum total of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, group or country. It is a quick way to measure the impact of specific activities on global climate change based on the amount of carbon created in the process. As more carbon is added to the atmosphere, the more thermal radiation from the sun is absorbed and emitted, increasing average global temperatures and endangering ecosystems and human populations around the world.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint at Home

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

As a whole, the U.S. recycles 34.3 percent of all garbage produced in a year, saving 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. By recycling some of the most common trash items, including plastic bottles, paper, glass and aluminum cans, you can lower your carbon footprint at home and make a small dent in the country’s footprint too.

Pro Tip: Unplug and Upgrade Your Devices
“Things like turning off lights, unplugging unused items such as your phone or laptop charger (known as vampire power or phantom loads), can certainly help. In addition to turning down thermostats, using efficient lighting sources and converting to Energy Star appliances.”
Brian McFarland | Director of Carbon Projects, Carbonfund.org Foundation

Refuse Junk Mail

How to lower your carbon footprint

Junk mail is incredibly wasteful. And while you could recycle all of it, the easier option is to sign up for 41pounds’ service. For $35, they will contact over two dozen bulk mailing companies to remove you from their mailing lists. You can also add more mailing companies to your block list at no additional charge. Best of all, their service lasts for five years before its time to re-up.

Pro Tip: Get a Home Energy Audit to Save Energy and Money
“For people who have the resources and want to do as much as possible at home, you can get a home energy audit for free with a rebate in some municipalities.”
Jon Fisher | Conservation Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

Reduce Food Waste

Globally, food waste accounts for 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. Luckily, there are some easy ways to reduce your own contributions in this area:

  • Plan Your Meals: Create a weekly meal plan so you know in advance what you need to buy instead of grabbing a bunch of random stuff.
  • Buy Exact Amounts: If a recipe calls for a single carrot, don’t buy a whole bag of them.
  • First In, First Out: Follow the golden rule of restaurant kitchens. New items go to the back of the fridge, while old ones come forward.

Bonus Tip: Eat Locally and Seasonally

Watch Jon Fisher of The Nature Conservancy explain the benefits of eating produce grown locally and within season:

The Local Tomato from Nature Works Everywhere on Vimeo.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint at Work

Use Your Favorite Mug

The average American office worker uses about 500 pounds of disposable cups every year, resulting in roughly 120 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. To eliminate that poundage entirely, bring a mug to work. Not only will you reduce your carbon footprint at work, you’ll also have a golden opportunity to demonstrate your great sense of humor with a hilarious, yet inoffensive, novelty mug.

Bring a Bagged Lunch

How to lower your carbon footprint

Often times, those changes we make to reduce our impact also increase the size of our bank account – especially when it comes to lunch. By making your meals at home and bringing them to work you can both reduce your footprint and save yourself the $8 to $12 you would otherwise spend on a commercially prepared lunch.

Pro Tip: Find Ways to Stick to Your New Habits
“If you can, surround yourself with like-minded people to support your new actions…for some positive reinforcement, write out a plan and sign your name to it.”
Jenn Wood | Director, terrapass

Turn Off the Bright Lights

That flickering fluorescent tube above your workstation creates 1 ounce of carbon dioxide per hour of use. By the end of a 40-hour work week, each tube creates 2.5 pounds of carbon emissions. Multiply that number by the total amount of fluorescent tubes in your office and suddenly that number gets a lot bigger. Fortunately, the solution is as simple as remembering to switch off the lights in your office, conference rooms and the break room after you leave.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint on the Go

Cut Back on Air Travel

Air travel is a large contributor to an individual’s carbon footprint, especially if you are a frequent flier. A one-way flight from Los Angeles to Boston emits roughly .30 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 661 pounds. When combined with other trips taken in a single year, air travel can quickly become the largest share of an individual’s carbon footprint.

Lowering carbon footprint

Jon Fisher says frequent air travel “will dwarf most anything else you do [to reduce your footprint]. Try to look for ways to work remotely or other alternatives, such as driving.” If you absolutely have to travel by plane, Jon recommends avoiding layovers as multiple trips produce more carbon dioxide than a single non-stop flight. However, Brian McFarland of the Carbonfund.org Foundation doesn’t believe “anyone should be discouraged from flying, if such flights are necessary. But if you can, use conference calls or Skype [in lieu of] air travel.”

Pro Tip: Consider Carbon Offsets for Air Travel
“You can purchase an offset that puts funds directly into a project that prevents greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere…You can also get on a monthly subscription to make it more manageable [and then] go back and adjust your offset for trips over the previous year.”
Jenn Wood | Director, terrapass

Incorporate Biking Into Your Transportation Rotation

Out of all the possible ways to get around, biking has the lowest carbon footprint and is even the most efficient! Of course, replacing your daily commute or grocery trip with a bike ride can be a challenge. To get into the habit, start with small leisure trips to a local park or other destination. Once you’ve established a routine, you can graduate to longer trips to those places you used to drive to all the time.

Pro Tip: Focus on Energy and Transportation
“The two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are from energy usage and transportation. These are the two areas people should try to prioritize their greenhouse gas reductions”
Brian McFarland | Director of Carbon Projects, Carbonfund.org Foundation

Take the Bus as Much as Possible

Lower your carbon footprint

When you need to get somewhere faster, use the next most efficient form of travel: public transport. Taking the bus or train is more energy-efficient than taking a car due to the additional passenger capacity. According to City Lab, the footprint of a full 70-passenger bus is only .14 pounds of carbon per passenger mile, whereas a car with only one occupant is .89 pounds.

Long-Term Changes to Lower Your Carbon Footprint

Hold the Beef

How to lower your carbon footprint

People like beef – there’s no way around that. But the enjoyment of a nice juicy burger is dampened a bit by the fact that that patty results in five times more emissions than either a pulled pork or grilled chicken sandwich. That’s primarily because cows need a lot of feed, and that feed in turn requires a lot of fertilizer which produces nitrous oxide – an extremely potent greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Yet direct emissions are only half the problem, as 28 times more land and 21 times more water is required to make beef compared to pork or poultry. In fact, by giving up beef you could reduce your carbon footprint more than if you were to give up driving a car.

Pro Tip: Cut Back on Beef, Save the Rainforest
“Tropical beef is often times raised on lands that were once rainforests and have subsequently been cleared for cattle ranching.”
Brian McFarland | Director of Carbon Projects, Carbonfund.org Foundation

Consider a Slightly More Vegetarian Diet

Lowering carbon footprint

Becoming a vegetarian essentially halves the amount of carbon your diet creates compared to meat eaters. In fact, vegetables have one of the lowest footprints out of all the most common food choices, including chicken, tuna, eggs, rice and tofu. Even if you don’t see yourself giving up meat anytime soon, introducing more leafy greens and hardy vegetables into your diet in place of meat will go a long way towards lowering your footprint.

However, you should also avoid making yourself miserable with all these changes. As Jenn Wood of terrapass advises, “if you are trying a vegetarian diet, don’t just opt for beans and rice. Try to find a more creative recipe so it’s fun and not ‘blah’, and make it a fun event with friends and family.” Lowering your carbon footprint shouldn’t be all about sacrificing, otherwise you’ll lose interest very quickly. The key is to find a balance between what you do to benefit the environment and what you do for your own enjoyment.

Take a look at the Green Living section of our blog for more tips on living sustainably and making a positive impact on your environment. Ready to start tackling your carbon footprint? Use our carbon footprint calculator to get started.