It all seems so daunting: Climate change. Carbon credits. Not to mention biofuels, hydrogen power and solar energy. The vocabulary of a new century. There's a lot to learn.
The news is full of disturbing reports about global warming, threatened species, and the gradual realization that the way we live — particularly in developed nations — will have to change if we want to enjoy a clean and sustainable future.
Take your first step today
But there's no reason to feel overwhelmed. Every journey begins with a single step. We've rounded up the 10 easiest ways for you to start moving toward a lighter lifestyle. Some cost nothing at all. Others provide a lot of bang for your eco-dollar. In every case, these ideas will save you money, cut energy use, and help balance your household's greenhouse gas budget — the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere to produce goods or electrical power.
So pick a few, and give them a try. Before long, you'll establish the habits we all need to develop as we face the challenges of a resource-hungry planet.
1) Make the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Just a few years ago, CFLs were bulky, expensive, and hard to find. Thanks to environmental commitments by companies such as Walmart, CFLs are now readily available for about $2 each. That's more expensive than incandescent bulbs, but lumen for lumen (the unit by which a light bulb's brightness is measured), CFLs use much less power. They also last up to 10 times longer than regular bulbs. (When the bulbs do eventually run out, here's how to dispose of them.)That means that the average CFL bulb will save $30 in energy costs over the course of its life. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), if every American household were to swap just one bulb to CFL, we would save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars.
2) Monitor your thermostat. Small changes make a big difference over time. Make a note of where you normally keep your thermostat. Once you've got an idea where it is usually set in the summer and winter, make the Two Degree Pledge: up two degrees in the warmer months, and down two degrees when it's cold. Stay tuned for energy-efficient ways to stay comfortable through the seasons, and save up to $100 a year on your power bill. That's equivalent to 1 ton of greenhouse gases which would have been produced by the energy you saved.
3) Clean or replace your air conditioning filter. Depending on where you live, air conditioning filters can get dirty in a matter of days. An air conditioner with a clogged filter has to work harder, which means higher power bills and the creation of more greenhouse emissions. Running clean, you can save up to $150 each year. You'll also enjoy the benefit of fewer allergy causing particles in the air, and a more comfortable home or office.
4) Unplug idle appliances and electronic devices. Just because that cellphone charger doesn't have a phone attached to it doesn't mean it's not drawing energy. Devices such as televisions with standby modes can use up to half the power they would draw when turned on. Don't just turn something off: unplug it. The average household can save up to several hundred dollars a year just by pulling the plug on silent energy vampires.
5) Buy a low-flow shower head with a shutoff valve. In most homes, you can replace an old-style shower head with a modern unit in about 15 minutes. You'll reap two-pronged savings, both in water and the energy you'd have used to heat it. You're also saving your community the power it would have used to treat the wastewater. The benefits can be pretty impressive, since water heaters account for about 25 percent of home energy use. Put several hundred dollars back into your budget each year and keep water use to a minimum.
6) Drive smarter. In real world testing of common fuel-saving tips, the Edmunds Automotive Network found some surprises. First, it's a good thing to keep tires properly inflated, and this is a commonly recommended strategy for saving gas. But Edmunds found other ideas that make a more noticeable difference. Use your cruise control on the highway for up to a 15 percent improvement in mileage. Driving less aggressively is the single most effective way to save gasoline: accelerate out of lights more gently, avoid rapid braking, and only drive as fast as you must. And turn off your engine rather than idling excessively. If your car starts reliably, consider shutting it down at long lights. Skip the drive-through window, park and walk your business inside whenever possible.
7) Get an annual tune-up for your car. At $200 to $300, a full engine tune-up sounds like a pricey way to save fuel and money. In practice, it's a good investment. A faulty oxygen sensor, for instance, can penalize your car up to three miles per gallon. Worn spark plugs and dirty air filters can cost you another four mpg. It all adds up — fast. Set a fixed time each year to give your car the attention it needs. And check that fuel cap, while you're at it. A loose or poorly sealed cap will vent gasoline vapor, polluting the air and costing you up to two mpg. Tighten up!
8) Dust off that bike. Bicycles are the most efficient form of human transportation, and the only thing they burn is calories. Consider if bike commuting might fit your lifestyle. Even if this isn't the case, bicycles are a healthy and environmentally friendly way to run those short errands. You'll need a helmet, a good lock, and proper lighting if you're out before dawn or after dusk. Start by resolving to use your bicycle instead of a car just once a week and build from there. Keep an eye out for more articles on choosing an appropriate commuter bike and outfitting for comfort and safety.
9) Go meatless once a week. If you're not already practicing a vegetarian diet, consider cutting back on the amount of meat in you consume. As Frances Moore Lapp pointed out in her bestselling book, Diet for a Small Planet, livestock production absorbs 16 pounds of grain and soy feed for every pound of meat that actually gets to the plate. Each calorie of animal protein requires 78 calories of fossil fuels to produce, and irrigation directly associated with livestock production (including feeds) amounts to about half of all the consumed water in the United States. Give meatless substitutes like Boca Burgers a try, or scan vegetarian recipes for healthy and earth-friendly meal ideas.
10) Buy local; buy in season. According to the nonprofit group Sustainable Table, the typical carrot travels 1,838 miles before it ends up in your kitchen. That's a lot of food miles, and a tremendous amount of wasted fossil fuels and packaging. Buying regionally produced food is a keystone of sustainability: not only does it save the energy costs associated with shipping bulk produce, it keeps a portion of your grocery money close to where live. So locate your local farmers market and add it to your weekly errands. You'll be supporting local growers while enjoying fresh, seasonal produce. You can keep up with the latest advice and tips on eating local with MNN's Food blogger, Robin Shreeves.
And you're on your way
By the time you've taken a few of these steps, you'll probably be thinking of other actionable ways to present a lighter environmental footstep. And that's how meaningful change begins: consistent, incremental improvements to the way we manage our personal and community resources. Join with us in fashioning a wiser and more sustainable future.