Everyday Public Service: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint for the Greater Good

From large scale community initiatives to small scale changes at home, understand the social impact of your carbon footprint and learn the steps you can take to reduce its size.  

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

If you knew your everyday actions were contributing to the spread of disease, would you change them? If you knew that even your smallest daily habits were increasing the number the of people who are food insecure, would you think twice? If you knew the size of your carbon footprint directly impacted the lives of your neighbors, would you work to reduce it? For people who care about their communities, the answer to these questions is probably an enthusiastic “yes”, but how do you go about changing? Your carbon footprint impacts more than just yourself. There is a social impact attached to the size of your footprint and working to make it smaller is just as much of a public service as volunteering or charity work – you just need to know where to start. From understanding your carbon footprint and how to measure it to learning what you can do to reduce and offset it, keep reading to discover how everyday public service can make your community, and the planet, a greener place.

Understanding Your Carbon Footprint

There’s a lot of talk about our carbon footprints in the news and on social media but how much do we really understand? To make our carbon footprints a little less intimidating, let’s breakdown what makes up our footprint.

What is My Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is, as defined by The Nature Conservancy, “the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.” This includes many things that we take for granted on a day-to-day basis, such as driving a vehicle, heating a home, and buying things from the store. Even operating your computer creates some amount of CO2, and when you think about all the computers in the world, that number adds up fast.

Across the globe, The Nature Conservancy reports the average carbon footprint for one person is about four tons. In the United States, it’s four times that – an average of 16 tons of greenhouse gases created per person! To make a difference in the rise of global temperatures, a footprint of two tons or less is the goal. That’s a pretty big change, but with some mindfulness and hard work, it can be done. Reducing your carbon footprint starts with understanding your personal footprint and then taking steps to minimize it.

How Can I Measure My Carbon Footprint?

Many factors go into measuring a carbon footprint. From how much you travel and the method of travel to how many people live in your household and the appliances you use, the food you eat, and so much more. In fact, there are many factors you might rarely consider, such as how much plastic you use, that can dramatically affect your footprint.

The following footprint calculators can walk you through the factors and give you a number that represents your current carbon footprint.

Debunking Common Myths

With something as important as the health of our environment, there are bound to be some myths floating around. Let’s start by debunking a few of the most common ones.  

Myth: Air travel is the worst possible contributor to CO2 emissions.

Truth: Road transport contributes a whopping 74% of CO2 emissions; planes contribute only 12% to that total. In addition, 80% of those emissions come from long-haul flights, such as those that fly overseas, for which there is no practical alternative way to get to the destination.

Myth: Tap water isn’t safe, so bottled water is the way to go.

Truth: Tap water is held to rigorous standards, which are often more stringent than what bottled water companies are required to follow. In fact, about 64% of bottled water actually comes from the municipal water supply – the very same water that comes out of your kitchen tap!

Myth: Biodegradable plastic is much better than other kinds of plastic.

Truth: Though it might seem like biodegradable plastic is better for the environment because it eventually breaks down to basic elements, the process of that breakdown actually creates greenhouses gases. Therefore, cutting out as much plastic as possible – biodegradable or not – is the best option.

The Social Impact of Your Carbon Footprint

Though it might not seem as though one person can have an effect on extreme weather, hurricanes and fire events, the spread of disease, or even food insecurity, keep in mind that millions of people doing the wrong things for the environment can cause just that. Communities often face hardships that are a direct result of our carbon usage. Let’s take a look at the major issues that generations to come will face as a result of our overuse or depletion of natural resources.  

Extreme Weather Events

Think severe weather is getting worse? You’re not imagining things. Studies have found that CO2 levels in the atmosphere can directly influence weather patterns, including making storms, hurricanes, floods, and other weather phenomena much worse than in years past. As we see all too often on the news, severe weather can wreak havoc on communities, take countless lives, and lead to serious destruction across the world.  

Disease Spread

As more greenhouse gases are released, the overall global temperature goes up. As that happens, more insects that spread disease – like mosquitoes – begin to truly thrive. They become globe-trotting vectors for disease. Rising ocean levels can contribute to sanitation issues, which can in turn cause a multitude of water-borne diseases to spread. In short, the larger the carbon footprint of the world as a whole, the more we are all in danger of serious health problems.

Food Insecurity

Remember the severe weather that can be caused by our ecological choices? That severe weather can include altered rain patterns and even dramatic drought. That spells disaster for billions around the world, as staple crops become difficult or impossible to grow, more expensive, and packed with fewer essential nutrients. At a time when agriculture needs to ramp up production to feed the world’s population – expected to top 10 billion by 2050 – growing food is harder than ever.   

What You Can Do

Good stewardship of the world includes doing your part to make it a better place. Mindfully working to reduce your carbon footprint, even a small bit at a time, is a huge step toward a solution – and a good example to others to do the same. Here are some things you can do in your everyday life and local community to make a difference.

Community Sustainability Projects

When community comes together, great things can happen. These are just a few of the good ideas a group of devoted people can accomplish to reduce the size of their community’s carbon footprint.

Plant a Community Garden

A community garden is a wonderful way to bring people together and provide them with healthy, nutritious food with known origins. It also helps cut carbon footprints by reducing the travel time, expense, and carbon emissions it takes to get those same fruits and vegetables to your local stores.

Launch a Tree Planting Initiative

In addition to beauty and shade, trees help mitigate erosion, absorb air pollution, and remove a great deal of CO2 from the air. In fact, forests offset between 10 and 20 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by the United States each year. The more trees, the better!

Start an Eco Club

Let’s be honest: going green can be tough if you’re doing it alone. An eco club will allow individuals to share their ideas, form groups to get more things done in a green way and keep each other accountable – and uplifted! – when it comes to doing the best they can for the environment.

Organize a Trash Pick-Up Group

Trash on roadsides and in abandoned lots is not just unsightly; it’s refuse that will take a very long time to biodegrade and can easily poison the ground in the process. Creating a group to pick up that trash and put it in its rightful place can make the area look better while ensuring a healthier community.

Carpool with Neighbors

Need to get to the grocery store? A group of neighbors can opt to go on the same day, thus using only one or two vehicles and getting their shopping done all at once. Remember, one gallon of gasoline creates 20 pounds of CO2 released into the atmosphere; if that can be divided among four people in a vehicle, instead of each person taking their own vehicle, that helps substantially reduce carbon footprints.

Get Political

Individuals can do a lot, but the collective effort of local governments can do more. Get involved with the people who make the policy, and present the case for making large-scale changes in communities that can help the environment.

Related Article

Ever wonder how today’s colleges are reducing their carbon footprints and making the world an overall healthier place? Check out 10 Colleges Leading the Way in Sustainability.

Small Scale Changes

Though there’s no doubt environmental issues are huge and will take a worldwide effort to solve, every change begins with a small step. These are some small changes you can make, starting now, that will help do your part in lessening your personal carbon footprint. Here a few ways you can start to make a difference.

At Home

1

Change your diet.

Eating less red meat, choosing to patronize farmer’s markets instead of big grocery stores, and growing your own food can all make a huge difference in your carbon footprint. If we could collectively make the choice to adopt a more plant-based diet, we could save up to eight gigatons – yes, gigatons! – of CO2 per year. 

2

Compost what you can.

Every kitchen produces some food waste. Rather than toss it in the trash, toss it in the composter! The waste eventually turns into a rich, dark fertilizer that is perfect to use in home or community gardens. It can even be used for fertilizing indoor plants.

3

Find new uses for things.

Before throwing something away, consider how it might be put to use somewhere else in the house. For instance, glass jars can hold pens, pencils, buttons, screws, and more, old clothes can be cut into cleaning rags, and popsicle sticks can be used as garden markers.

4

Go with Energy Star appliances.

Energy Star appliances are great for your home because they can cut your utility bills by up to 30%; they’re great for the environment because they can avoid more than 5,500 pounds of emissions over the span of a year. 

5

Use a clothesline for drying clothes.

Rather than use electricity to run the dryer, let Mother Nature do the work and save over 1,400 pounds of CO2. Hanging clothes on a clothesline can dry them quickly, leave them smelling fresh, and might even make colors more vibrant.

At School

1

Use electronic textbooks.

Give the forests a break. The fewer books purchased, the less of an impact on the natural world. Look to electronic textbooks, which are readily available for most classes in brick-and-mortar schools, and quite common for online programs.

2

Carry a reusable water bottle.

Rather than hit up the vending machine for something to drink or carry around a water bottle that will get thrown into the recycling bin, opt for a reusable water bottle that you can fill at water fountains around campus.

3

Shop at thrift stores.

Buying secondhand clothing makes a huge dent in greenhouse gases. For instance, making a typical pair of jeans takes 1,800 gallons of water during the process and generates greenhouses gases the equivalent of driving 80 miles.

4

Take online classes.

Cut down on the commute to class by taking it right there on your computer. Online courses are available at most schools. And though there is still the environmental impact of electricity use to consider, online courses cut down significantly on commuting time, the creation of paper products, and other factors that lead to higher emissions.

5

Start a campus garden.

Looking for ways to beef up nutrition, help with food costs, and help the environment at the same time? Speak to administrators and the agricultural or science department about organizing a campus garden. Those who help with the garden get to enjoy the fruits of their labor!

At Work

1

Pack lunches in reusable containers.

Rather than use disposable utensils or packaging, invest in reusable lunch containers that will eliminate waste. Look for containers made of long-lasting materials that are gentle to the environment, like bamboo.

2

Use a power strip for electronics.

If the nature of your work allows it, speak to your supervisors about the use of a power strip for electronics at your desk or work area. Turning off the power strip at quitting time eliminates the “vampire draw” from a variety of computers, printers, and more.

3

Avoid printing.

Rather than printing out emails or similar missives, make a point of keeping it all digital. This saves on the water, electricity, and trees required in making the paper. It also offers the added bonus of a tidier office space.

4

Advocate for recycling bins.

In many offices, employees toss their paper waste into the trash can, and it eventually heads to the landfill. Work with your employer on the possibility of including both paper and plastic recycling bins at your workplace.

5

Work from home.

Remind your employer that telework has a strong impact on employee retention, helps avoid unscheduled absences, and saves on the energy the office uses in any given day. And that’s just what it does for the business – not to mention that it does for the environment!

On Your Commute

1

Go with public transportation.

If you’re lucky enough to have a public transportation system in your area, use it! Taking the train or the bus, especially if the transportation system has eco-friendly initiatives in place, is far superior to taking your own vehicle.

2

Consider the four day workweek.

Some employers are open to allowing work from home from time to time. Why not make it a weekly option? Speak to your employer about allowing telework for one day a week.

3

Carpool with a friend.

If you must drive, make every ounce of emissions count. Carpooling just twice a week can keep 1,600 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Carpool with as many friends as you can safely fit into a vehicle, and make a point of using the vehicle that gets the best gas mileage.

4

Consider riding a bike.

Ditch the gas-guzzlers altogether and go with a much more environmentally-friendly mode of transportation. Riding a bike can get you to your destination and back while providing fresh air and exercise in the process. What’s not to love?

5

Opt for an electric vehicle.

Rather than burn through gallons of gasoline that create untold amounts of exhaust that fills up the atmosphere, go for one with a battery. The emissions are up to 43% less than that of diesel vehicles.

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint Through Volunteering

When everyone pitches in together, great things happen, and your carbon footprint can drop significantly. Here are some ways to help alleviate the pressure on Mother Nature.

WWOOF at an Eco-Friendly Farm

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an international organization that links farmers with those who want to help make a difference. Organic farms are labor intensive, don’t use pesticides or harmful chemicals, and often give back to their local communities through farmer’s markets and other initiatives. When you help out, you’re reducing your own carbon footprint in the process.

Plant Trees with the Arbor Day Foundation

The Arbor Day Foundation focuses on helping individuals plant, maintain, and celebrate trees. Trees are integral to the battle against climate change and global warming, and thus the more of them we can plant, the better. The Foundation often has volunteer opportunities that will allow you to plant trees, educate others about trees, and help with publicity campaigns.

Help with Local River or Ocean Cleanup

Ever seen an unsightly layer of trash marring a beautiful shore? Volunteer with organizations that clean up the rivers and oceans, and do your part to keep the area clean and safe for everyone. A few good options are The Ocean Cleanup, Trash Free Seas, and National River Cleanup.

Work with an Advocacy Organization

Advocacy organizations exist all over the world. Their focus and methods vary but their overarching objective is the same: To reduce greenhouse gases, clean up the Earth, and make it safe and habitable for generations to come. Working with these groups as a volunteer can help them save on costs, reduce carbon footprints, and reach out to even more people who can make a difference.  

National Environmental Advocacy Organizations

Pursue a Green Career

The ultimate way to dedicate yourself to reducing your carbon footprint and making a positive social impact is through pursuing a career (and degree) in an environmentally friendly field. To learn which degrees and careers in sustainability could be right for you, check out our guide to green careers and environmentally conscious careers.

Offsetting Your Carbon Footprint

No matter how hard we try to reduce our carbon footprint; some emissions are unavoidable. Along with reducing your environmental impact, individuals can take positive action to offset their carbon footprints by supporting climate projects that prevent carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere. Below are a few popular carbon offsets initiates aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

This organization focuses on responsible tourism that enhances, rather than detracts, from the beautiful vistas and peoples around the world. Look to this organization for sustainable travel solutions that allow you to travel across the world and feel good about it.

Regenerative agriculture with leading corporations, providing carbon offset support to major companies, and building sustainable properties allows companies to work with the comfort that they are doing their part to help the environment. There are a variety of ways for everyone from individuals to big businesses to get involved.

With over half a million members and ongoing projects around the globe, Cool Effect helps with carbon offsets for individuals and businesses. Over 90% of every dollar in the organization goes to project partners who support sustainable methods and lowering of emissions.

This organization provides energy and climate consulting for companies, direct and indirect carbon offset projects, and RECs and global equivalents that help reduce the environmental impact of energy use. Partnerships with utilities, community solar options, and renewable natural gas are just a few of the exciting initiatives the organization is taking to help make the world a better place.  

Carbon Footprint Reduction Resources

1 1% for the Planet

2 350.org

3 The 35 Easiest Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.
Offered by Columbia University, this article provides ways to get started with going green.

4 Calculate Your Carbon Offset. 
These calculators look at the carbon footprint of the individual, household, travel, and events to help give a true picture of energy usage.

5 The Four P’s of Community Solar. 
Curious as to how to make your utilities greener? This white paper has some answers.

6 Eco-Cycle. 
This organization focuses on creating zero-waste communities.

7 Environmental Protection Agency. 
This government agency is charged with creating policy and practice to protect the environment.

8 The Guide to Using Carbon Offsets. 
This report from Cool Effect provides in-depth information on what carbon offsets are and how to use them.

9 How Communities Have Defined Zero Waste. 
This section of the EPA website offers great examples of what various communities are doing to cut down on waste production.

10 Planet Aid. 
This organization provides a wealth of information on all areas of climate change and eco-friendly methods.