Author: Lote Steina
With Joe Biden now heading the United States and China committing to ambitious climate goals, all three global economic superpowers (including the EU) have the common vision of becoming carbon neutral by mid century. Reaching this goal will require a lot of brave legislation and copious investment over the next few decades.
Regardless of the actions taken by governments and international institutions, what it all boils down to is our individual activities and preferences. Governments will go out of their way to help us along the way to become more sustainable, but in the end it is up to us to turn the tide.
This will be the first of two blog posts aimed at genuinely helping you along the way to a more eco-friendly lifestyle. In this blog post I will focus on small, everyday things that will genuinely make your lifestyle more sustainable and which you can start practicing right now without fundamentally changing your life and ideals.
The second blog post will highlight more structural things that you can slowly aim towards to make a long lasting and positive change. Think about it this way – this blog post will focus on setting the right tasks and forming positive habits; the next blog post will help you to reshape your goals and give a bit of an insight as to how to be successful in achieving them.
You can’t change the world in one fell swoop, but making small, incremental changes in your everyday life will help you along the way to the greater goal of living in a more sustainable way. The great thing about this is that in essence, it is your textbook habits theory. Although some of the new things may seem challenging, doing them for about 60 days will entrench a habit.
The logical question is – where should we start to make improvements? According to a recent and comprehensive study on the global carbon footprint of US households, we see that, regardless of income level, housing, transportation, and consumption (in that order) are the three main categories under which most American emissions are generated. While Europeans may differ from their transatlantic cousins in certain nuances, the general picture is likely the same.
The great thing about these three categories is that each has fairly clear culprits. For housing it is utilities, for transportation it is fuel consumption (that is driving to work), and for consumption it is a bunch of stuff, but primarily a combination of food and services. Pretty straightforward starting positions, right?
Let’s start with utilities. The great thing about reducing your consumption of electricity, water, and whatever you use for heating (natural gas, electricity, wood etc.) is that it will not only be good for the environment, but it will save you some money as well. Here are five simple things to start with:
1. Turn the lights off (and use energy efficient lighting)! While pretty far from being the biggest budget breaker, leaving your lights on wastes a lot of electricity. Just be mindful about turning off the lights whenever and wherever you don’t need them.
2. Take shorter showers. The average American uses 25300 gallons (close to 100 000 liters) of water a year for showers. One minute of showering uses up about 5 gallons (18 liters) of water. Just a couple of minutes less a day, will have a huge impact (both in environmental and financial terms).
3. Regulate the heating. Better to take the temperature down a notch than open windows and let all that money and resources fade away. Turn the heat down when you head to bed – it doesn’t just save resources, but improves the quality of your sleep. Plus, dress accordingly. Winter is for sweaters and trousers not t-shirts (even indoors).
4. Unplug things and avoid standby mode. Devices not turned off, but left in a standby mode add 11% to your yearly electricity bill.
5. Wash your clothes in cool water for shorter cycles. When doing laundry most energy is used to heat up the water and to keep the washing machine going. Cooler water and shorter cycles will end up helping the environment and help you save anywhere from $50 to $200 a year depending on your family size.
The great thing about all of these is that they are fairly easy to implement and make a habit out of. Add sticky notes next to your shower or on your washing machine reminding you about their potential cost. As for the heating – if you have a thermostat in your home, go and set it up right now (or add a task for later)! Lighting and unplugging will take some time to get used to, but with some attentiveness and commitment you can turn the tide on that too.
This is a bit trickier and may be more challenging for some. For example, try as some of our American friends might, getting to their job without a car is impossible as American cities, suburbs, and public transportation networks are planned far more differently than they are in Europe.
However, if you do manage to reduce your carbon footprint from transportation, it will also bring other benefits (even more so than utilities). You could not only save significant amounts of money, but improve your health by getting some exercise if you walk more or commute using a bicycle. In addition avoiding frustrating traffic jams and long, lonely, sedentary commutes will improve your mental wellbeing. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
1. Minimize driving alone to the bare minimum. It’s not driving a car that is so damaging per se – it is moving that metallic container around 80% empty. So carpool, grab friends along if they are heading in the same direction, or maybe even install a ride sharing app and earn a couple of bucks on the side taking someone with you to your destination. Better to have three people in one car not three cars on the road.
2. Pack as many things in one trip as possible. If you need to shop, go to the gym, take your kid to the party, or run any other errands – it’s best to put all of these into one trip.
3. Go easy on the gas and brakes. Don’t be that guy that accelerates for 100 meters just to hit the brakes by the red light. It is not just incredibly annoying, but it also uses way more gas than smooth riding. Not to mention wearing the car itself down immensely.
4. Use public transportation (if feasible). Yes, it is an expense, but is still cheaper than driving a car every day. Plus it is far better for the environment.
5. Walk or cycle. My general rule is that any distance up to 3 km (about 2 miles) is walkable. Any distance up to 8 km (5 miles) is cycleable. Get some fresh air, exercise, and save some money. Before distance working I personally saved up to $500 a year walking and cycling instead of using public transportation. Had I used my car I would have easily paid $1000 for gas and maintenance.
Now this is the tricky part. While most of us can take easy, impactful, and financially beneficial steps regarding utilities and transportation, the same is harder when it comes to consumption. However, if you do it right you can be more environmentally conscious while also not spending any extra money. Here are a couple of easy to do things that will help you towards a more sustainable life without changing your lifestyle too much:
1. Have a grocery list and stick to it! The main principle to abide by not just to be more sustainable, but to improve your finances – be in control of what you buy! Supermarkets are designed in a way that encourages people to buy extra stuff. So discipline yourself and focus on the task at hand. No distractions, no unnecessary stuff, no extra emissions!
2. Plan your meals for the week ahead. Most of us don’t have the faintest idea what and how much we are going to eat next week. Thus we end up either buying too much and throwing food out (up to 400 kg or 880 pounds a year) or buying too little, the latter of which causes more shop runs or ordering food – none of which are the greenest or most financially friendly options. Instead – plan your meals for the week ahead and you’ll reduce food waste and your food budget significantly.
3. Cut down your meat and dairy consumption. We don’t have to abandon these cherished foods, but it would sure help if we could reduce their consumption by 30% or so. Once you have planned your meals for the week ahead, see how many meals you have that contain meat and dairy. Then reduce that number by any degree you see fit.
4. Be an environmentally conscious shopper. While the previous three steps could actually save you some money, we recommend using those extra Euros or dollars to buy greener products (which tend to be somewhat pricier). Whether it is locally sourced produce, products without plastic packaging, highly energy efficient appliances, sustainable fashion, or quality products that last long, if you really have to buy something, buy it green. Think about it this way – it costs more now, but it will pay off later.
If you manage to apply at least few of the principles outlined in this blog post to your everyday life, it will make a difference! Remember – most of these things are not just good for the environment, but will aid your finances too.
Tune in for the second blog post in two weeks to see the most meaningful ways to reshape your life and set your own sustainable development goals!