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Posted: 8:17 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014

Unexpected ways to help the environment

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Dec. 23, 2013 photo
Dan Roblee
In a Dec. 16, 2013 photo, Michigan Tech physics instructor Kris Bunker rides his bike in Houghton, Mich. Winter roads are slippery and narrow, but a hard core of local bicycle commuters are still pedaling to work. Bunker said this is his fourth winter riding daily from Hancock to MTU's campus, "and I haven't had a day the weather has stopped me." (AP Photo/The Daily Mining Gazette, Dan Roblee)

By Shana Lebowitz

Greatist.com

This article is presented in partnership with CamelBak, an innovative company creating smart hydration solutions to help people perform at their best. Known as the creator of the hydration backpack, CamelBak offers a variety of hydration products from water bottles and filtration devices to a custom hydration calculator. However You Hydrate, We’ve Got Your Bak.

The statistics are overwhelming. Scientists continue to study the effects ofclimate change and the media reports daily on pollution, extinction, and the myriad ways humans are destroying the planet. Given the dismal reality, it can be tempting to throw our hands up and assume we can’t do anything to improve the situation.

But that’s where we’re wrong. While the most dramatic changes will need to take place on corporate and governmental scales, there are a number of ways the average person can make his or her daily routine more eco-friendly, from actions as simple as using smaller plates and as unexpected as shopping online. In fact, a healthy lifestyle and an eco-conscious one often go hand in hand (extra bonus: being eco-friendly is often easier on the wallet).

Some of the most important environmental efforts include conserving energy and reducing water consumption, but here we’ve chosen to focus on some less obvious (but equally significant) habits. What follows is a list of the five biggest, less-talked-about lifestyle changes that will help the environment, with detailed guidance for how to accomplish each one. Read on, and don’t forget to hit the comments section below to let us know how you’re making a positive impact on the planet.

ACTION ONE: SCALE BACK CAR USE

In the last few years, Americans have started driving a lot less, turning to alternatives such as walking, biking, and public transportation. While many people make that choice to save money or to get fit, it’s also a great way to reduce the amount of dangerous greenhouse gases (which are responsible for a large chunk of climate change) we release into the environment. One powerful way to minimize the environmental impact of driving is to trade in your clunker for a more eco-friendly vehicle. Another (less costly) option is to use the tips below to drive less every day.

1. Start cycling.
Maybe it’s because of the marketing of snazzy accessories for cyclists, like the invisible bike helmet and gloves that light up with turn signals, but the number of Americans commuting by bike has increased significantly in the last decade or so. That’s a really important development when it comes to protecting the planet, since biking instead of driving can reduce more than90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions [1] [2]. (Plus, cyclists can save thousands of dollars annually compared to car owners.). New to the roads? Check out this handy-dandy infographic to get biking (safely) in no time.

2. Walk it out.
When it comes to making eco-friendly choices, throwing on a pair of sneaks uses significantly less energy than cruising down the highway. Obviously walking isn’t always a viable choice (think road trips to visit family across the country), but there are some simple ways to sneak more foot action into your daily routine and cut down on carbon emissions from your vehicle. Trywalking through the drive-through (idling vehicles are particularly wasteful), parking your car as far away from the store as possible on shopping trips, or walking from store to store if your destinations are close together.

3. Pick public transportation.
True, half an hour squeezed between a crying child and an adult armpit is not always ideal, but perhaps we can find solace in the fact that by giving up the comfort of the driver’s seat, we’re making a substantial contribution to the health of our environment. In fact, a single person who swaps a 20-mile round-trip commute by car to public transportation can reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 4,800 pounds. (That's the equivalent of 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the average two-adult, two-car household.) Plus, it’s the cool thing to do nowadays: Between 1995 and 2012, American public transportation ridership increased by 34 percent. The most energy-efficient modes of travel tend to be train and bus rides, followed by riding alone in a car, and then flying in a plane.

4. Come together.
The only thing better than singing alone in your car is having someone else to ride with and point out that you don’t actually know the right lyrics. Carpooling is another easy way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — one source estimates that if you join just one other person on a 50-mile round-trip drive to and from work, you’ll reduce your monthly emissions by almost 10 percent. Enlist a coworker or use one of these apps to find a commute buddy and save the environment together.

5. Combine errands.
While the number of Americans cycling and using public transportation may be increasing (see above), not too many report practicing less obvious fuel conservation habits, like combining errands when driving is necessary. But taking one big trip to pick up groceries, drugstore items, and dry cleaning instead of making each a separate adventure is one easy way to cut down on gas emissions. Perhaps surprisingly, taking multiple short trips starting from a cold engine can use twice as much fuel as one longer trip with a warm engine.

6. Shop virtually.
Online shopping: The perfect way to purchase that self-help book we’re too afraid to pick up in Barnes & Noble — and save the planet at the same time. One survey found as many as 70 percent of online shoppers say they prefer to buy from their favorite retailer online. Kudos to them, since buying online almost always involves less energy use and fewer carbon dioxide emissionsthan in-store shopping.

7. Telecommute.
It’s still unclear whether working from home (an increasingly popular option) always saves more energy than working from an office simply because you don’t have to drive there and back. Some experts say employees use twice as much energy at an office than at home; others say those who work at home make up for it when they spend extra time turning on lights, opening refrigerator doors, running the dishwasher, etc. Another eco-friendly option is to join or create a co-working space, so that telecommuters can confine their energy usage to a single room or building close to home.

8. Record your trips.
Think of it as a travel journal, except you don’t have to go anywhere that requires a passport. Simply keeping a diary of where, when, and how long you’ve driven can help you pinpoint the trips that aren’t exactly necessary (or that could be combined), thereby cutting down on fuel use and gas emissions.

ACTION TWO: REDUCE FOOD WASTE

Everyone’s talking about how much food Americans eat, but we hear less about how much food they don’t. In the United States, we throw out about40 percent of our food every year. In fact, the amount of global food wasteproduced each year is more than enough to feed the nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world. Instead of filling empty plates, that wasted food usuallyends up in landfills and eventually turns into a destructive greenhouse gas called methane. What’s more, wasting food means squandering the resources (like water and energy) that went into the production of that food. Luckily there are many easy ways to be more careful about our consumption and reduce the amount of food waste we produce on a daily basis.

1. Make a plan, Stan.
Most of us know not to hit the supermarket hungry (Five bags of Doritos? Totally necessary.), but tackling the aisles with a list can also prevent us from loading up the cart with items we’re just going to end up throwing away. The best idea is to plan the week’s meals in advance, figure out what ingredients are required for each, and write them all down on a list. As long as you actually stick to the meal plan, there shouldn’t be much food left over!

2. Keep track of the trash.
Start logging a weekly record of every food item you toss in the garbage. That way, you can notice patterns (e.g., every week you throw away half a gallon of spoiled milk) and tweak your shopping habits accordingly. Certain apps can help by letting you know when something in your fridge is about to expire.

3. Donate to food kitchens.
If you haven’t yet tailored your weekly food purchases to your eating habits (see numbers 1 and 2), think twice before trashing all that grub. Unfortunately there are individuals and families in need all over the countrywho would really appreciate the head of lettuce you were just about to toss. Start by finding a local food bank and asking what kinds of food donations they accept.

4. Understand expiration dates.
It’s important to understand what expiration dates on food products actually mean, so that you don’t end up throwing away a perfectly good loaf of bread. Expiration dates actually refer to the product’s quality, not safety. And there’s a difference between the “sell-by” label (the deadline for retailers to sell the product) and “use-by” (the date when the product starts to lose its quality and flavor.) There are a bunch of techniques you can use to extend the shelf life of everything in your kitchen, like keeping the fridge and freezer cool enough and unpacking groceries as soon as you get home from the store. Disclaimer: We are not advocating that anyone eat curdled yogurt for the sake of saving the environment!

5. Learn to love leftovers.
Few people want to eat the same thing for dinner five nights in a row, but throwing away the remainders of last night’s meal just to avoid boredom isn’t the most eco-friendly option. Instead, try getting creative in the kitchen and experiment with new dishes you can make using whatever’s still hanging around. Or freeze leftovers so you can eat them down the road.

6. Create a compost pile.
Even those who don’t live on a farm or in a house with a backyard can do the eco-friendly thing with their trash. Composting means recycling nutrients back into the ecosystem, which keeps food out of landfills and waterways and enriches the soil. Some communities have local composting programs, so ask around to find out how to get involved with yours. Or start your owncompost indoors. (It’s possible to do it in a way that doesn’t stink; we promise.)

7. Take it home.
As restaurant portion sizes get larger and larger, it’s getting harder and harder for some of us to lick our plates clean. Impress fellow dinner guests with how eco-savvy you are and come prepared with a container for taking home whatever you don’t finish. (Otherwise, the restaurant is probably just going to throw away your leftovers.) Bonus: That’s one more meal you don’t have to cook this week.

8. Use a smaller plate.
When dining from a buffet, it can be tempting to load up on absolutely everything, even if we know we can’t reasonably eat it all. Avoid temptationby starting with a smaller plate that fits less food, and trick your brain into thinking you’ve gotten your money’s worth.

ACTION THREE: USE LESS FOOD PACKAGING

We’ll give you the bad news first: Food packaging makes up almost two thirds of total packaging waste in the United States. (All those cheese stick wrappers and yogurt containers!). That means a whole lot of waste ending up in landfills, which means more methane released into the air. The good news is that many companies are becoming more aware of how much food packaging they use and taking steps to reduce it (edible wrappers, anyone?). Individuals can pitch in too, so check out the tips below to see how you can cut down on your packaging use pronto.

1. Carry your cups.
Given the U.S.’s caffeine obsession, it’s no surprise that the average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups per year. This is an area where we can make a huge difference in the amount of waste we produce just by toting our own travel cup. Bonus: Some stores (even Starbucks!) provide discounts for bringing your own mug.

2. Bulk up.
It’s a goal at the gym, and it should be our mentality when food shopping too. One big bag of rice uses less plastic than five smaller ones, so consider purchasing bulk quantities of foods that last a long time (think pasta, cereal, and nuts). Just be sure to store them properly so they don’t go bad before you can use them.

3. Make it metal.
Bakers, beware: Using a new disposable aluminum tin every time you make a cake is hardly the way to reduce food packaging waste. Instead, consider investing in some metal and ceramic baking pans that you can re-use.

4. Let loose.
Eliminate an easy-to-overlook source of food packaging waste by buying loose tea instead of individual tea bags and investing in some related equipment like a tea infuser. (It’s also worth noting that tea bags are typicallystored longer, meaning the nutrients tend to disappear over time.)

5. Go naked.
When shopping, look for products with minimal to no packaging, or at least packaging made from recycled items. That means buying loose fruit and veggies instead of tomatoes wrapped in plastic and cereal that’s housed in just a bag (not a bag and a box). If you do choose packaged products, check the label to see if the packaging was made from recycled materials. And be sure to recycle or reuse (see the next tip) any cardboard, paper, or plastic packaging when you’re done with it.

6. Choose to reuse.
It may be tempting to toss those takeout containers and peanut butter jars, but that plastic and glass can easily be saved and reused for other purposes, like storing all those bulk goods that you stocked up on (or using an empty pickle jar as a way to display photos). Just be sure to check the number on the bottom of the container to make sure it’s safe for reuse with food products, since some plastics can leach toxins when they’re used for too long. (Numbers 2, 4, and 5 are generally safe; numbers 3, 6, and 7 aren't.)

7. Get crafty.
Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than stripping a new product of its packaging and throwing all those Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap in the trash. But these items can easily be reused for some more creative purposes — for instance, bubble wrap can insulate plants from the cold andpackaging peanuts can be stashed between blankets for extra warmth on wintery nights. Or just save ’em for the next time you need to ship something.

8. Forego the forks.
If you’re ordering takeout at home, there’s no need to use plastic forks and knives. One of the easiest ways to be more eco-friendly is simply to ask the restaurant not to include napkins, utensils, or condiments with your order.

CamelBak

This article is presented in partnership with CamelBak, an innovative company creating smart hydration solutions to help people perform at their best. Known as the creator of the hydration backpack, CamelBak offers a variety of hydration products from water bottles and filtration devices to a custom hydration calculator. However You Hydrate, We’ve Got Your Bak.

For a list of 40 unexpected ways you can help the environment right now, go to Greatist.com.


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