#EarthDay2020: Your Carbon Footprint

Reducing our carbon footprint should a be goal for every household, for the environmental benefits, but also because it is generally a healthier lifestyle.

This blog is part of a series of blogs from ACE Recycling In recognition of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.  This series focuses on changes you can make to decrease your carbon footprint and help the environment.  These changes are intended to be user-friendly.  Being environmentally responsible has the added benefit of being healthier and more cost-effective.  The goal is to create fun and engaging activities for the whole family.  Simple changes to our everyday lives have big impacts on our health and the health of our planet.  #EarthDay2020 #EarthRise2020 #ActsofGreen #ACERecyclingBlog #SmallChangesBigImpacts

Before we discuss ways to decrease our carbon footprints, we need to understand what carbon is and what a carbon footprint is.  Most are aware that carbon is an element found on the periodic table of elements, and some are aware that life is carbon-based.  It is essential to understand there are complex systems at work.  For an overview of these systems, read the first article in this series.  That will give you background and context for this article. 

Recently, carbon has come front and center as we engage in a worldwide conversation about the effect carbon is having on our climate, and consequently, humans as a whole.  The second article of this series discusses this in more detail.  It is in this context that the phrase carbon footprint has become part of our vocabulary.  When talking about a carbon footprint, footprint refers to what is left behind by an individual, precisely how much carbon that an individual is releasing directly or indirectly through everyday activities. 

It is crucial to understand that humans are a part of the system and are subject to the laws of nature.  Therefore, when we alter one thing, it will change something else, and those alterations will affect all life on earth.  Likewise, your choices ripple out to affect humans halfway around the world.  Reducing our carbon footprint should be a goal for every household, for the environmental benefits, but also because it is generally a healthier lifestyle. 

Your Carbon Footprint

Your carbon footprint is essentially the carbon that you have pulled out of storage and put back into circulation.  Most of us think of driving a car when we think of putting carbon into the atmosphere, but there are far less obvious ways we do this.  For example, when you eat a quarter-pound hamburger, you are pulling 14.6 gallons of water out of the system, using 13.5 pounds of feed and producing 4 pounds of greenhouse gases. How many quarter-pound hamburgers have you eaten in the last year?  We tend to disconnect from the process of production.  This detachment blinds us to the resources that we are using. 

To calculate your actual carbon footprint, you have to include these hidden emitters of carbon dioxide. There are many carbon footprint calculators on the web.  We recommend the Footprint Calculator put out by the Global Footprint Network.  This calculator allows you to “add detail for accuracy” for some of the categories, make sure you do that.  In the end, it will give you not only your carbon footprint but many other stats.  It will tell you your Earth Share.  This number represents how many Earth’s there would need to be to sustain your lifestyle.  It tells you your ecological and carbon footprints and breaks down your consumption by category. 

What's your carbon footprint?  Comment with your score and pledge to change one thing to help lower it!
The average ecological footprint per country in 2018.
The average ecological footprint per country in 2018.
Ways to Reduce your Carbon Footprint
Reducing Energy Usage

First, let’s deal with the distinct ways to decreases our carbon footprint: reduce our use of electricity.  Here in Phoenix, this is challenging, with temperatures in the summer hitting 115 degrees in the shade.  There are ways to reduce the need for the energy-sucking air conditioner, though.

1. CREATE SHADE.   Close your blinds and plant trees that will block south and west-facing windows.  Plantlife reduces the ambient temperature by several degrees and has the added benefit of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.  It will also cut down on noise and pollution coming from cars on the road.  Several native species are low maintenance, low water, and fast-growing. 

2. INVEST IN A SMART THERMOSTAT like the Nest.  The Nest “learns” your temperature preferences and will automatically adjust for optimal energy use when you aren’t home.  It will also give you a report on the amount of energy used, allowing you to see your peak use times and adjust.

3. UNPLUG AND ADJUST! When appliances are not in use, unplug them.  Adjust high energy usage for the night.  If your TV is off, it is still drawing power (is there a light on?  That takes energy!).  For those appliances that are used every once in a while, unplug them.  Program your pool pump to come on when the sun has gone down, and it won’t have to draw as much power. Use the dishwasher, washer and dryer, and other high energy appliances at night and sparingly.   

4. INVEST IN SOLAR.  Seriously, do it!  We went solar, and we will never go back.  We have a 3,000 square foot house that was designed poorly for energy savings.  The main living area is two stories, and both thermostats are out in this cavernous space.  During the summer, the upstairs bedrooms were like iceboxes because the air was continually running.  Aside from being illogical, it was expensive for us, and the planet.  We invested in solar panels and got the Nest thermostat.  For nine months out of the year, the electricity company owes us money. When we do have to pay, our bills are $300.00 – $400.00 less than they were. 

Reducing Carbon, Increasing Health and Community

Next, let’s look at all the ways you can reduce your carbon footprint that are less obvious.  The first three are focused on food.  The production of consumption and disposal of food is one of the most significant contributors to climate change.  The problem, however, is that many Americans aren’t hearing or talking about their food’s carbon footprint. More than half of those surveyed, in a survey conducted in concert with Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication, the study, titled Climate Change and the American Diet, resoundingly reported the willingness among Americans to eat less meat.  Most have rarely heard about the environmental impact of food in the media. And nearly two-thirds said they rarely talked about how their diet affects climate change. That same number said nobody has ever asked them to eat more plant-based foods.

 https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food  This graph shows the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted at each stage of food production.  Beef is the highest emitter of greenhouse gasses, with crops being lowest.
https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food This graph shows the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted at each stage of food production. Beef is the highest emitter of greenhouse gasses, with crops being lowest.

A surplus of food is a relatively new phenomenon that many older Americans will have seen throughout their lifetime.  We eat and waste more food than ever.  With more people in the middle class, families have more spending money and less time. This lifestyle shift started in the 80s and has spiraled into “supersized” fries, drinks, and humans, resulting in a tremendous rise in diabetes and heart disease.   Our health is at risk, as much as the planet is. About half of American adults have one or more diet-related chronic diseases such as heart diseasehigh blood pressuretype 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, the report states. More and more evidence shows that the kinds of food we eat have a worsening effect on our gut health and immune system, which play significant roles in protecting our overall health. Researchers say that changing the way we eat could help prevent us from getting sick sooner — or later — in life. 

1. EAT LESS MEAT, especially red meat.  We are the only society on Earth that feels we need to eat meat every day.  As mentioned above, the amount of resources that go into producing that meat is intensive.  EarthDay.org is running a campaign focused on food.  It is called Foodprints for Future, and it highlights ways our food choices impact the planet.  One simple thing you can do to reduce your foodprint is to make it a point to have one or two vegetarian meals a week.  My children love this because I make them pancakes for dinner.  It turns out, pancakes are one thing they will all eat (parents you know this is worth its weight in gold!), and it is meatless.  Win, win.  Red meat is not good for us.  It is full of fat that raises cholesterol.  Heart disease is the number one killer in this country, primarily due to our diets, including so much red meat.   

2. REDUCE FOOD WASTE.  When food decays, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  I have three small children; food waste is prevalent in our house.  You don’t know how many times they want something, and as soon as it in front of them, they no longer “like” it or “want” it.  The struggle is real. To reduce food waste, commit to making less food, and reducing portion size.  In the US, portion sizes are out of control and affecting our health.  According to research, Portion sizes began to grow in the 1970s, rose sharply in the 1980s, and have continued in parallel with increasing body weights.   We need to remember that an abundance of food is a privilege that we squarely take advantage of when we throw away food. The fact is food insecurity is an issue worldwide, including here in the US.  The USDA defines “food insecurity” as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members. In 2017, an estimated 15 million households were food insecure.  According to ActionAgainstHunger.org, around the world, more than 780 million people live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per person per day, an amount which is impossible to support a healthy livelihood in any part of the world. 

3. GROW FOOD.  The processes of harvesting, packaging, and shipping food all produce carbon.  Also, part of the equation is your trip to the store to buy it all.  Gardening is a fun family activity.  We have a garden and grow food from the seed.  My children love this time with their dad playing in the dirt.  We compost and use the soil to produce some very hardy plants, even in the desert. 

4. BUY LESS. Everything you buy is manufactured, shipped, and packaged.  All of that releases carbon, but also creates waste—instead, swap clothes, jewelry, etc. with your sister, friends, etc.  My mom and I frequently swap jewelry and outfits to change up our wardrobe.  Have a garage sale or donate to local charities, homeless, or woman’s shelters.  Buy from an electronics recycling facility like ACE.  Buying local helps strengthen your local economy and reduces carbon by cutting out the shipping and, often, manufacturing.  But most importantly, it gets you out in your community. 

https://www.statista.com/chart/15143/percieved-food-waste/   The US is the highest producer of food waste.
https://www.statista.com/chart/15143/percieved-food-waste/ The US is the highest producer of food waste.
Call to Action

Historical evidence tells us that 21-25% of a population needs to change their behavior to enact significant system-level changes.  67% of US adults believe the US government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of global climate change.  It is clear that while we can lean on our government, individual behavior changes are more critical. Individuals can make a difference; they have throughout history.  The present is not an exception to this truth. These behavioral changes influence our neighbors, children, family, and friends.  They, in turn, affect their neighbors, children, family, and friends.  A ripple starts that cannot be stopped and spreads in ways we cannot imagine.  Soon these ripples touch governmental policy and law, and before we know it, we have joined together to affect real institutional change that all started with simple choices. You can create significant impacts with small decisions you make.  The ripples we begin ultimately are what we leave behind when we are gone.   

PREVIOUS ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

#EarthDay2020: Carbon 101

#EarthDay2020: Carbon & Us

#EarthDay2020: Carbon & Our Electronics

Author: Shelby Maguire

Shelby earned a bachelor's degree at Lake Erie College in biology and a master's degree in education at Ursuline College, both in her home state of Ohio. She currently lives in Phoenix, AZ where she was a high school science teacher for 10 years. She left the classroom to run ACE Recycling with her husband, but is an advocate for education and a life-long learner. She is passionate about science and works to educate the general public about science, specifically environmental issues. She is a self-proclaimed science nerd who loves research. She and her husband John, have three small children.

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