10 Simple Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint and Save the Planet

We’re in a four-year drought, and while the extent to which we are is up for debate, it’s best to resort to worst-case scenarios when the climate is at stake.

Last year, KQED posted a article called “How Much Water Do Californians Use and What Does A 20 Percent Cut Look Like?” In it, they compiled some very handy statistics, namely the 2011 average for household water consumption (360+ gallons a day), the split between average external and internal water usage (53% – or 190 gallons – on landscaping, car washes, etc; 47% – or 170 gallons – on showers, toilet flushes, food preparation, etc.), and an in-depth breakdown of percentage usage for various functions.

If you need more convincing that climate change is both real and of immediate concern, check out the Stanford Roundtable on Climate [video]. One important point from the all-star panel was from Bina Venkataraman (director of global policy initiatives of the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard), who noted that wealthy residents in Hillsborough account for three times (on average, per capita) the energy consumption as compared to individuals in the working-class neighborhood in East Palo Alto. This relates to a larger issue about cap and trade politics, which I’ll discuss in a future post, but the statistic alone highlights the troubling obsession with conspicuous consumption as a status symbol. Only when the symbol of wealth becomes scarcity, something I think is becoming more likely with the nouveau riche’s minimalist design sense, will any change occur amongst the biggest wasters.

There are a few obvious solutions that come from this data:

    1. Stop washing your car. If you’re worried about how your car will look, start taking public transit. Public transit is not only good for the environment and the government, but it also encourages citizens to reduce their driving and legislators to extend transportation routes more widely.
    2. Replace your lawn with drought-resistant crops. If you’re set on having a green lawn, there are a variety of drought-resistant grasses that are relatively easy to install. But if you’re interested in taking your open space one step further, consider planting a small garden with rotating crops. These serve to fertilize the ground, provide free groceries, and foster more appreciation of the food cycle.
    3. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” I have to admit, I’m still not a huge fan of this initiative. But considering nearly a fifth of residential water usage is dedicated to toilet flushes, it seems wasteful to use between 3.5 – 7 gallons of water every time you think you have to pee. (That being said, if you’re somewhat stinky in the restroom, consider changing your diet and drinking more water, so at least it’s going through you instead of the septic tank directly!)
    4. Use a bucket to collect your cold shower water. In this drought, even taking a three-minute shower makes me feel guilty, and it’s partially because of all of the water I let go directly down the drain while I wait for the shower to heat up. No longer! Putting a bucket under the faucet helps offset water consumption by providing clean water to water plants, wash dishes, flush the toilet, and – depending on your level of comfort – use as drinking water.
    5. Turn off/down your shower while soaping up. This is fairly obvious to most people, but upon witnessing my friend’s roommate regularly taking hour-long showers full blast with no break (in an apartment with only one bathroom, no less!), it bears repeating. Yes, it might be cold. Yes, the shower is a great place to think. I’d recommend in that case making your shower quick, putting on a warm robe, and meditating – you’d be doing the planet and yourself a favor (plus excessively hot showers can lead to yeast infections, so..).
      Alternatively, consider heating your water on the stove and taking a bucket shower – they’re surprisingly satisfying and extremely water-efficient, and a step up from Burning Man-esque sponge baths (which we might have to resort to next).
    6. Check your equipment. (Not that way.) 18% of residential water usage stems from leaks, so do an extensive check of your dwelling’s plumbing and fix broken items immediately. If you have the ability to do so, change out your low-efficiency appliances for energy-saving models (refrigerators, toilets, washing machines, shower heads, etc.).
    7. Stop washing your clothes as often. I’m not sure if I’ll be revealing too much here, but here goes: I only wash my clothes/sheets once every 3 – 4 weeks, meaning I only use the machine 13 – 17 times a year. As a petite (relatively) sedentary woman, I do have smaller laundry loads than the average 6’6″ basketball player, so I understand the occasional need to do laundry somewhat more frequently. But if you’re doing your laundry any more than twice a month, you need to reconsider your habits and/or the knee-jerk reaction to put anything you wore once directly into your washing machine.
    8. Soak your dishes, then completely scrub and wash before rinsing. The following (horrifying) pattern is all too common:
      1. Run water full force with nothing underneath;
      2. Pour detergent directly into dish while water is running;
      3. Put dish under running water;
      4. Scrub under running water;
      5. Rinse thoroughly, essentially re-washing the dish by brute force;
      6. Put dish into dish dryer while the water is running;
      7. Chat with someone / eat a sandwich / leave the room completely while the water is running.

      Everything about this is wrong. The best way to wash your dishes is actually much simpler:

      1. Clear your dish-drainer to make room for new dishes.
      2. Quickly run some water over your dishes; leave them to soak for five minutes. (Water should be off.)
      3. Put a small amount of detergent on a sponge. (Water should be off.)
      4. Fold the sponge in half, then run a small amount of water over the sponge. Squeeze it to generate suds. (Water should be off.)
      5. Scrub your dishes thoroughly, using both sides of the sponge if necessary. (Water should be off.)
      6. Pile all dirty dishes in one area of sink or countertop. (Water should be off.)
      7. Using a low flow of water, rinse all dishes in one swoop, and load into dish-drainer.

      Bam. It’s that easy. Tell your friends.

    9. Use fewer dishes when cooking. Whenever possible, try to use the same cutting boards, utensils, and pots and pans to prepare your food, and make a lot of leftovers. I’ve never been one to make a big messy meal (I’m the opposite of a gourmand), but this lesson was never more applicable than when I was washing dishes during my shifts at Lightning in a Bottle and Burning Man. At the latter, the lack of water made my one-woman task even more frustrating, and the cooks’ reluctance to use fewer dishes surprised me during a festival centered around the principle of “Leave No Trace.”
    10. Get a carabiner for your metal water bottle. Don’t have a metal water bottle? That’s your first step. I’ve had a Klean Kanteen since my freshman year of college, and as bruised and battered as it is now (it has been to more than 20 countries!), it has beautifully saved me from using several plastic bottles over the years. I made it easier for myself (and therefore more appealing to carry) by putting a carabiner through the top loop and attaching it to bags, belts, and backpacks. Drinking water is the first most noble use of water, so cherish it while you can!