Is skipping a straw actually making a difference?
With only eleven years left to divert climate collapse, it’s in everyone’s interest to protect our planet. But are our ‘little changes’ actually making the big impact we’ve been promised – or should we do more?
At Twenti, we’re pretty worried about this. That’s why its our mission to reduce our impact, create a sustainable company, and to encourage others to do more for the planet, too.
The importance of encouraging both personal and institutional action on climate change has currently rocketed into the limelight with protests from Extinction Rebellion and the Fridays for Future movement. We need a combination of political action and big personal changes to get the global community moving forward to protect our home.
You can watch the video below to see a moving speech from 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who founded the Fridays for Future movement that has seen hundreds of thousands of students striking from school across the world.
We know we all have a role to play in turning the tide on climate change, so we’ve rounded up the changes that the current scientific evidence suggests will have the biggest impact on your personal carbon footprint. It’s by no means complete – but it’s a great place to start.
Eleven years to keep climate change under 1.5 degrees. If we go higher than this, we are looking at huge rises in sea levels, complete collapse of ocean ecosystems and more and more unpredictable extreme weather events like hurricanes and tsunamis.
Leading organisations like the UN are telling us unanimously that we need to act now with global systematic change in order to save the planet. But what they also tell us is there is still time, if we do act.
But how do we know what actions to take to actually make an impact? Skipping the odd straw might save a turtle short term, but in a few decades, the ocean will be too warm for any turtles to actually survive.
So what should we really be doing? Whilst reducing your waste, with products like reusable coffee cups and straws, do play an important part, there are more radical changes we can make to cut our resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s not just about institutional change. It is hugely important that we get governments and multi-nationals to change the way they treat the planet, but that doesn’t mean we cannot do anything to show we care. Make these changes in your own life to hugely reduce your carbon footprint and show that we will not sit back and watch our planet go to waste.
Below is an example of an estimated carbon footprint for one UK individual. To get a more accurate one, you can calculate your own footprint with WWF.
Read below to see the top ten ways you can reduce your carbon footprint, why the food and aviation industries are the most damaging to the planet, and the one thing you could do that would double your footprint…
On average, each person in the UK throws away their body weight in rubbish every seven weeks, and according to Plastic Free, each household throws away about 40kg of plastic that could be recycled every year. Plastic is a huge proportion of our waste, and while some of it can be recycled, most of it isn’t.
It’s entirely possible – and has been done – to be completely waste-free in our lives. This would stop millions of tons of waste going to landfill in the UK every single year. This would be a huge amount of land saved.
Each kilo of plastic has a carbon footprint of about 6 kilos of CO2, meaning that 120kg of CO2, per household, per year, is created simply to make plastic that goes straight in the bin. This excess CO2 isn’t even the main reason to give up plastic – most people ditch it because it doesn’t break down, and often gets washed into the ocean.
You might think this means that the answer to this issue is just recycling materials. However, whilst some materials, like aluminium cans, are a responsible choice as they can be endlessly recycled, plastic cannot be recycled again and again in the same way.
Recycling also has a dark side. As Forbes reports, it legitimises a throw-away culture; we are told that it doesn’t matter how much plastic or paper we use, because we can recycle it, so throwing it away is a-okay. This isn’t true. Not all – and often not much – of the things we send off are actually recycled, and, when it is, recycling is very resource and energy intensive process. This is on top of the fact that some plastic materials just can’t be recycled at all.
Although plastic is the most damaging form of waste, as it doesn’t biodegrade, unfortunately ‘compostable’ alternatives like cornstarch-based plastic packaging or paper aren’t much better. These still use valuable time and resources to produce, and so-called biodegradable or eco plastics might not actually break down as we might expect.
Considering all this, the popularity of the zero-waste trend is no surprise. A great way to reduce your waste is to try shopping at a zero-waste bulk store for dry products, using containers scavenged from neighbours that would have otherwise gone to landfill.
You can also buy all your fruit and veg without plastic, at supermarkets, greengrocers or farmer’s markets and switch to solid skin and hair care products. Avoid single-use products like coffee cups, straws and plastic bags like the plague. Even reusable products like washing up cloths should be swapped for biodegradable, non-plastic alternatives. For more tips take a look at the Going Zero Waste blog.
9. Try a green energy supplier
Energy conservation is seen as one of the most important things we can do to fight climate change, and it is – if you use fossil-fuel energy. However, this is now far from necessary.
It’s easy to switch to 100% green energy. You can use a provider that uses 100% green and renewable energy like these listed on MoneySupermarket or, even better, install solar panels on your home. Although these green energy options are not ‘carbon free’ – they all produce carbon at some point in their lifetimes, such as when solar panels are created – they are a lot more responsible than using fossil fuels to power your home.
It’s also important to reduce your usage as much as possible and the easiest way to do this is not to live alone. One report argued that divorce squandered resources as people that would have been living together (and sharing lighting and heating) are now each doing so separately. Living with others, like flatmates, and therefore sharing space and resources is great for minimising your carbon impact.
It’s also important to switch to appliances and LED bulbs with a better eco-rating and insulate your home well, to make it as green as possible, as well as saving you money. Try this energy efficiency calculator to find out what improvements would lower the impact of your home, and search on Save Energy for local grants you can get for installing insulation or green energy measures.
Water is an essential resource for human life. Clean water is already unavailable to millions of people across the globe, but this is usually seen as a distant issue in the Western world. However, the UK is set to face drastic water shortages if we don’t act to reduce our usage.
It might be surprising to find water conservation so far down this list: one of the first things we are taught about environmental changes is to not run the tap whilst we brush our teeth, or to take quick showers instead of baths. Whilst this is important, it’s not actually the biggest change we can make for the environment.
Choosing showers over baths is one of the easiest ways to conserve water – as long as you take quick showers. Around 3-5 minutes is ideal, as if your shower is over 10 minutes, it might actually use more water than a bath. You can also invest in a flow restrictor or extra efficient shower head.
Heating water is also very energy intensive, so we should aim to have colder showers too. Turn your boiler down to 60 degrees to use less energy. For even more impact, switch out your boiler for a solar water heater which, according to Carbon Footprint, can provide all of your hot water during the summer, and 50% for the rest of the year. This would reduce your carbon emissions by 400kg a year – about 5% of your annual emissions.
This BBC guide also recommends using a water saving feature on your toilet like a ‘save-a-flush’: a bag you place in your cistern to reduce the water used per flush. If you have a garden or pot plants, collect rainwater to water them with, rather than using tap water that takes energy to treat and pump.
7. Reduce food waste
The amount of energy and resources that go into producing food that is ultimately never even eaten is enormous – and that’s before the food rots and releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
Therefore it’s essential to eat food that would normally go to waste, and not letting the food you’ve bought go to waste at a consumer level. We are seeing the introduction of ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetable ranges at supermarkets, which is great, and if you buy local, for example at a farmer’s market, you are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables that a supermarket would reject, and therefore save it from going to waste.
We need to make sure we don’t buy more than we need, buy long life foods, and freeze foods before they go to waste. Since dairy and meat are more dangerous once out of date, basing your diet on fruit and vegetables could result in less waste and more flexibility over best before dates.
A more extreme measure to reduce waste would be to try dumpster diving – collecting thrown out food from behind supermarkets that can no longer be sold due to strict best-before dates but is still good to eat.
This is pretty much impossible to rank in terms of how much greenhouse gases it saves, but forcing the government and other organisations to prioritise environmental issues is a hugely important action.
Some changes you can make to make your voice heard on climate change are:
- Vote for parties and candidates who prioritise environmental policies
- Contact your representatives and encourage your representatives to support environmental policies and changes
- Encourage your friends and family to make changes and prioritise the environment
- Vote with your pound; support environmentally aware companies and boycott those that treat the planet irresponsibly, such as those in this Ethical Consumer article
- Join global movements to protest climate inaction, such as Extinction Rebellion, or the Youth Strike 4 Climate
- Sign and support petitions that encourage environmental action, like banning irresponsible plastic packaging
Unfortunately, we can’t count on everyone to make an effort to save the planet simply because they care. Legislating environmental issues, as well as nationally educating others on environmental issues, is necessary to make sure climate action doesn’t end at the individual, but that it becomes a habit for everyone.
Legislating environmental issues is necessary to make sure climate action doesn’t end at the individual, but that it becomes a habit for everyone.
5. Buy second hand and make it last
Even if you aren’t a rampant shopaholic, you can still reduce your impact by changing how you shop. Whatever you buy, be it Lamborghinis or t-shirts, can all be bought second hand. Second-hand items stop resources going to waste and do not increase the demand for more materials to be sourced and used.
It’s also important to make sure you don’t overbuy. It’s best to have fewer, perhaps more pricey, items, that you use over and over. What’s more, minimalism is proven to have a positive impact on your mental health, as explored by this Netflix documentary. It’s a win-win for you and the planet.
We can use clothes as an example. The fast fashion industry has been getting a lot of attention recently, with Stacey Dooley’s BBC documentary ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’, and the public is becoming more and more aware of the environmental (not to mention ethical) implications of cheap clothing. It’s estimated that the clothes industry alone accounts for 10% of global emissions, and Trusted Clothes reports that this could increase by 60% by 2030.
It’s also an extremely wasteful industry; in the UK, we send 350,000 tonnes of clothes to landfill every year, but only wear two-thirds of what we own.
That’s only clothes. What about the technology industry? Or furniture? We can guess that the production of the new items we buy accounts for over 10% of our carbon footprint.
Therefore, it’s essential that we re-use materials and items instead of binning them and making more. If you could buy everything second hand, it would reduce this 10% to almost zero, as well as saving land by not adding to landfill sites, and stops harmful chemicals leeching into the environment as items degrade. We’ve already made enough things for everyone to use, we just need to distribute them more effectively, and not be snobby about using things that other people have previously owned.
Try procuring hand-me-downs from friends and family, visiting car boot sales and charity shops and buying through online resale sites like Depop, eBay and Gumtree.
This depends heavily on how much you drive, but if you use a car, this probably accounts for a large proportion of your carbon footprint. The condition and efficiency of your car will effect your impact, but we can do a few calculations to work out how much carbon dioxide your driving might be releasing.
Say you do a 10km round-trip commute to work every day, for 260 days a year (the average days worked in the UK). A small petrol car produces about 0.17 kg of carbon dioxide per km. This means, in a year, your short commute is releasing 884 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere.
That’s about 8-9% of your annual carbon footprint – and that’s just a short commute, in a full, properly maintained car. If we count a few longer trips, and some driving on weekends, this is probably over 10% of your annual footprint.
Although switching to public transport wouldn’t reduce it to zero, it would greatly reduce your impact. Buses and trains have a much lower environmental impact. Electric cars are also an option, or you could cycle or walk if your commute is short. If you could reduce this 10% on travel by even half, you will be releasing hundreds fewer kilos of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.
Cutting animal products from your diet was named by researchers at the University of Oxford as “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth”.
3. Try a vegan diet
Very close behind the impact of air travel comes the impact of eating meat and dairy. Cutting animal products from your diet was named by researchers at the University of Oxford as the change with “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth”.
Switching to a vegan diet could decrease your carbon emissions by up to 13%, or even more if you focus on eating locally and in season, and have responsibly small portion sizes.
The Oxford study found that it reduced an individual’s carbon footprint from food by an enormous 73%, and would use 75% less land if everyone on the planet went vegan – leaving plenty of land to be returned to the wild spaces that would absorb CO2 and allow wildlife to thrive.
This isn’t the only study that supports the adoption of a largely plant-based diet. The Planetary Health diet is a guideline developed by independent NGO commission ‘Eat Forum’ for the UN. It describes what everyone should eat in order for us to effectively feed our huge global population, as well as to reduce deaths from diet-related diseases.
Whilst the Planetary Diet is not fully vegan, it only allows very small amounts of meat and dairy products – only one portion of dairy a day, and a few portions of meat a week – again proving that our current diet, consuming meat daily, is unsustainable.
However, since the probability of everyone on the planet adopting this diet is slim, we have a responsibility to cut down our intake of animal products as much as possible to reduce the strain on our planet.
If we could cut the 20-30% of global emissions that are caused by food production by the 73% predicted by Oxford, we could rapidly reduce our global impact.
We should also note that this only focuses on the greenhouse gas emissions caused by food production – but animal (and over-intensive plant) agriculture has a host of other harmful impacts. Overall, it might even reduce your impact more than cutting down on flights, which is currently at number 2 on this list. Pesticide and fertiliser run-off from farms into the environment is extremely damaging, and livestock farms produce a lot of waste.
Raising animals is also water intensive, using up our limited supplies. Due to the high use of land in animal agriculture, lots of land has to be cleared; it’s predicted that animal agriculture has caused 80% of Amazon deforestation. 136 million acres of land have been cleared for animal grazing, versus 26 million for palm oil production, despite this being seen as the leading cause of deforestation by many. Fishing is also contributing significantly to species loss by disrupting the ecosystems and food chains.
If you want to try reducing your meat intake or want more information, have a look at this great starter kit from Veganuary.
2. Reduce your air travel
Obviously, this depends heavily on how much you fly, but air travel is one of the most damaging things you can do for the environment. It’s currently much more damaging to travel by air than any other form of transport.
Flights use a huge amount of fuel, but there are also concerns that the height at which the greenhouse gases are emitted may make them more effective at providing the damaging ‘greenhouse effect’.
They’re also problematic because its unclear who should take responsibility for curbing the emissions of international flights, and this has therefore often been left out of plans like the Kyoto protocol. Similarly, aviation kerosene (the fuel in jet engines) on international flights is exempt from tax, which brings the price down on both fuel and flights, so more can be run. The problem is that implementing this tax would also require a global effort, as explained in this 2012 document from the House of Commons.
Until more sustainable fuel alternatives for air travel are developed, choosing lower impact alternatives is essential. Take holidays closer to home, and travel by bus or train. Need to cross the ocean? You could even try taking a trip on a commercial cargo ship, which has a much lower carbon footprint than flying.
The New York Times reports that a long round trip from the US to Europe produces a climate warming effect equal to 2 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide, which is about 20 to 30% of the average European’s annual footprint. The more flights you take, the higher this percentage will be.
If you choose a more sustainable alternative such as train travel, you could cut your carbon footprint by around 15%.
A growing population exacerbates all other issues, as it increases use of land, water, fuels and our greenhouse gas emissions. Curbing population growth is a key way to reduce global emissions.
1. Consider having one less child
The main problem with climate change is that it’s almost impossible to use fewer resources when the population is constantly growing.
The quickest way to reduce emissions is to slow population growth. NPR reports that slowing population growth could reduce carbon emissions by a quarter without any other action needed. A growing population exacerbates all other issues, as it increases the use of land, water, fuels and our greenhouse gas emissions, and so should be tackled first.
If you don’t have any children and take responsibility for not producing another lifetime’s worth of carbon emissions (your child’s), you are essentially halving your potential climate footprint. This saves a lifetime’s amount of CO2 – around 10 tons a year – being released into the atmosphere.
This makes it the single most effective choice you can make. A study by the Oregon State University in the US concluded that not having an extra child was up to 20 times more effective at halting climate change than other changes people commonly make.
There’s also a growing radical trend to avoid having children because of the uncertainty of the planet’s future. The movement calls themselves BirthStrikers, and you can read more about them in this Guardian article.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t have a family. Researchers agree that having one child per couple would be a responsible way to maintain the population, and adopting children (rather than creating more) would not have a negative impact, as you are not causing the expansion of the population.
So, what now?
As the saying goes, you do not have wait a single second to change the world. Book a holiday by train and make a meat-free dinner. If everyone did this today, we would show that we can no longer support these damaging industries in the face of climate change.
As for everything else, focus on the old adage: reduce, reuse, recycle – but keep in mind that the ordering of these words is very important. Reduce what you buy and the impact it creates first, then make it last for a long time, and then, lastly, consider how to recycle the resources you use.
The measures on this list aren’t the only things we can do to reduce our impact, but they are the most important ones. You might be surprised that recycling or ditching straws are low down on this list, given the attention they are given in the media and education systems, and, as we mentioned, these do have their place but we need to do more.
These top 10 changes were ranked by how much they reduce an average European’s yearly greenhouse gas footprint. For example, if flying takes up 20-30% of your carbon footprint, then not flying will reduce your carbon footprint by 20-30%.
You can see our pie chart at the top of this article for a rough estimate on the percentages that each industry makes up of an average footprint. We haven’t added having less children to the pie chart to give a clearer view of how each industry makes up the footprint.
However, many of these changes have other positive environmental impacts, like the reduction of land, water or energy usage, stopping the release of harmful chemicals into the environment, or reducing the amount of waste we create. This hasn’t affected our ranking, but it should also be taken into consideration when you think about the changes you want to make.
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