America can thank its well-maintained highways for a thriving car culture, but those Sunday morning drives have an environmental impact. The average American household has two cars, according to Statistica, and the average car emits six tons of carbon dioxide every year. The amount of pollution a single car creates depends on how efficiently it runs, that is, how many miles per gallon it gets. If you want an approximate estimate of how much carbon dioxide your own car produces, keep in mind that burning through one gallon of gas will create 20 pounds of carbon dioxide.
Related: The Greenest Cities in America
Pollution on Your Plate
It's a simple formula: The more meat you eat, the more greenhouse gas emissions you create. Food accounts for 30 percent of emissions in America, and most of those emissions come from the beef industry in the form of methane, a greenhouse gas that's approximately 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If you want to do the most to minimize your carbon footprint, you can reduce or eliminate meat from your diet. While a vegan diet is the most environmentally friendly choice, you don't need to stop eating meat altogether to make an impact. According to The Washington Post, swapping a five-ounce steak for beans just once a week for a whole year, can keep 331 kilograms of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—that's the equivalent of saving 37 gallons of gas. If you don't think you can give up meat for a day, you can still reduce your emissions by switching to chicken, which can keep 270 kilograms of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when traded for steak once a week for a year. These dietary adjustments aren't just good for the planet; they can help you save you money on your grocery bill, and may lead to health benefits and weight loss.
Hot and Cold Paradox
Air conditioners have become ubiquitous in today's American homes—90 percent of American homes now have them. Widespread access to air conditioning has resulted in an 80 percent decline in heat-related deaths since 1960, according to a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Political Economy, making them an important part of a safe and healthy life. Paradoxically, however, these cooling units contribute to the planet's rising temperatures and the dangerous heat waves that can happen as a result from a changing climate. Air conditioners account for 6 percent of America's residential energy use, or 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Decreasing your family's reliance on air conditioning, running the unit less frequently or at higher temperatures can put less carbon dioxide into the air, save on energy costs, and help contribute to a cooler planet.
Up in the Air
Americans are blessed with many incredible vacation destinations—no passport required! Most American vacations are domestic, at 85 percent, and 39 percent of American vacations take the form of road trips—a more energy-efficient form of travel than flying—according to a New York Times article. Despite the popularity of road trips, many Americans fly frequently—an average of five flights a year for those making $75,000–$99,999 annually, according to a report by Airlines for America. Because a single flight creates a lot of carbon dioxide—.9 metric tons per person for a round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco!—conservation organizations recommend driving or traveling by car, bus, or train when traveling short distances; flyers can also take advantage of carbon offset programs from airlines like Delta, JetBlue, and others.
Forty percent of food in the United States ends up in the garbage instead of on the plate, and while that waste happens everywhere—on the farm, in the grocery store, and in restaurants—much of it happens at home. The average American throws away three-and-a-half pounds of food every week, and not just rotten food or scraps, either—68 percent of at-home food waste could have been eaten. Food waste is more than just bad manners and a drain on your wallet; it has an environmental toll, takes up space in already crowded landfills, and creates greenhouse gases—every pound of food in the landfill generates nearly four pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. Minimize your food waste by planning and prepping meals ahead of time, and freezing any fresh foods that you can't eat in a timely manner. Buy less food at the store, and smaller portions at restaurants so you aren't stuck with leftovers you can't eat. If you must toss out expired produce, send it to the compost heap instead of the landfill.
The average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing per year, according to one survey—and 95 percent of that textile waste could actually be reused or recycled, if the owners only knew the value of their old stuff. Clothing accounts for 5 percent of waste in the United States, and much like food and paper, clothing emits methane when trapped in the landfill. Conscious shoppers can minimize their textile waste by focusing on quality over quantity—buying fewer clothes and investing in a small number of pieces of higher craftsmanship. Better clothes are more expensive in the short term but they'll save money over their wearable life and reduce strain on America's resources. To learn more about sustainable wardrobe options, visit Close the Loop.
They're your best friend—nay, family—but your well-fed fur babies eat a lot of meat, the production of which creates 64 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (that's the equivalent of driving 13.6 million cars). It's a vast amount, especially when you consider that pet diets account for 20–35 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in America. That's so much meat that if America's cats and dogs formed their own country, they'd rank fifth in worldwide meat consumption. It's unreasonable to ask Fluffy to work against her evolutionary nature and go vegan, but if you're concerned about the environmental impact of your four-legged friend's food bowl, reduce the amount of beef you serve and swap in other lower impact meats instead.
A national conversation has been brewing for several years about the utility of the suburban lawn, especially in light of recent droughts that cause municipalities to enforce watering restrictions, or regional debates about the merits of planting vegetables and native plants instead of turf grass. Whatever the benefits of a grass-free yard, and there are several, many Americans cherish their lawns and the smell of fresh-cut grass, but finding a lower-pollution way to care for the yard could make outdoor recreation even more enjoyable. Conventional gas-powered mowers create 106 pounds of greenhouse gas in one mowing season, and emit fumes that can overpower the smell of grass and fragrant garden plants. Conventional mowers also create neighborhood noise pollution reaching up to 100 decibels (hearing loss occurs at 90 decibels). A lower emission and lower noise alternative is the cordless electric mower, which is 50% as loud as a gas-powered model. A manual push mower is the quietest and cleanest of all, and provides a good workout for anyone who wants to skip the gym on mowing day.
Gas-powered lawn and garden equipment makes quick work of many strenuous tasks, but operating these power tools can create other problems altogether. Case in point: fuel spills. Residential spills are so common that in California alone, lawn and garden equipment spills amount to 17 million gallons of fuel each year. These spills can contaminate both the ground and the water, taking a serious toll on the local environment.
When decision makers in the fashion industry discovered the economy and convenience of synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester, they probably never imagined their clothes would end up both on the runway and in the belly of whales. It has become clear however, that when a synthetic garment is washed, it sheds up to 1,900 microfibers—that is, essentially very small pieces of plastic; some of these fibers are trapped in municipal water treatment facilities, and some of them end up in the ocean where they can be ingested by marine life, small and large. Researchers are still trying to understand how these microfibers impact life as it works its way up the food chain, but it is clear that microfibers can be toxic and can act as sponges that absorb more toxins. If you're concerned about the amount of plastic you might be sending into the world's waterways, try buying only clothes made of natural fibers like cotton, silk, and linen. When it's time to upgrade your washing machine, consider choosing a front-loading machine, as one study found that top-loading washers release seven times the amount of microfibers.
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