Excessive carbon emissions have been raising concerns across the world for quite some time now, and for good reason. They are the driving force behind the harmful increase in average global temperature that leads to the plethora of negative environmental effects known collectively as, “climate change.” Science points to human activity as the reason for this sudden influx of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere, because large volumes of emissions are not being fully absorbed.1 But what are we really doing differently that’s putting all this CO2 into the atmosphere?
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put together a comprehensive breakdown of carbon emissions sources, with the main contributors including transportation, electricity, industry (referring to the whole economic sector responsible for the production and manufacturing of raw materials into goods,) commercial and residential (meaning the energy costs associated with businesses and homes, mostly the emissions released for heating and waste management,) and agriculture.2
Each category burns fossil fuels, like coal and other natural petroleum-based gases, to provide heating, electricity, and mechanical energy. Understanding where carbon emissions come from may persuade you to turn off the lights in rooms you aren’t in, unplug devices you aren’t using, and use more public transportation as opposed to driving in your effort to reduce your individual emissions – and these are all wonderfully eco-friendly habits!
Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emissions in the United State by economic sector, as reported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
However, the impact of something as simple as shopping for your groceries may not be so obvious. It’s tempting to see that “agriculture” accounts for only 10% of emissions and then decide that food isn’t a priority among your arsenal of eco-conscious lifestyle changes. We can forget that the 10% of emissions is still really 655 million metric tons of CO2 going into the atmosphere every year.
In a way, this 10% is the part of emissions we have some of the most control over. We might not be able to convince massive shipping companies to revert to electrically powered cargo fleets or all of our electricity companies to go solar, but the foods we choose to stock our houses with and where we choose to buy them are entirely up to us. Here are some ways you can reduce emissions, from the store to your kitchen:
When you buy…
Shop locally! Farmer’s markets are a great way to take your grocery shopping to a new level of eco-friendly. It may take some coordination and extra planning, but the rewards more than make up for that. Shopping from local vendors can be much easier on your wallet, but can also help you:
Avoid plastic packaging.
Did you know that 40% of plastics produced are used for packaging? This packaging is intended for one-time use and often is incinerated. Incinerating plastics can emit 6 million metric tons of CO2 – that’s a lot of CO2, and that’s not even counting what it took to create that plastic packaging in the first place.4 Avoiding plastic-wrapped food is safer too – plastics can leach harmful chemicals such as BPAs into your food, which when consumed can have harmful effects on your body.5
Shop in season
With the conveniences of it always being summer somewhere, superstores are always stocked with everything you can imagine – but this isn’t necessarily great for the planet. When shopping locally, your options are limited to what the farmers are able to grow, when they are able to grow it. Not only is this food typically fresher and more nutrient dense, but you’ve cut out all the emissions it would have taken for your food to have been flown halfway across the world.
PROTIP: Bring your own bag! Often times plastic bags can’t or won’t be recycled. On average, they are used for only 12 minutes before they are trashed and contribute 33 grams of CO2 to the atmosphere per bag.6,7
When you cook …
Switch up your tools and materials
Make a gradual switch to reusable dishes, storage containers, wraps and carrying vessels. Don’t ditch the disposables just yet – make sure you get a good use out of them! But when you replace them, swap foil and plastic wrap for beeswax wrap, paper and plastic plates and bowls for ceramics, and Ziploc bags for silicone sandwich bags. These are all investments that will make your food taste better and last months to years longer than disposable options.
Another great investment is a water filtration basin. There are many benefits to filtering your tap water. You won’t be buying gallons every week, you’ll be avoiding plastic bottles, and you won’t have to carry as much weight from your car to your fridge every grocery trip!
Try a Meatless Monday
What the world needs is not a single perfect vegan – our environment needs everyone to simply try their best. You don’t have to give up everything you enjoy. Instead, limiting some of the more harmful items and allowing everything in moderation is much more beneficial to the planet as well as yourself.
Meats, especially red meats such as beef, have much higher emissions per kilogram of food than do vegetables, due to the shipment process, land use, and food production required for farming. The world doesn’t need you to stop your meat consumption cold-turkey, but if 100 people participated in a meatless Monday every week for a year, there’d be 5,200 less kg of CO2 released needlessly into the atmosphere.
Figure 2: The amount of greenhouse gases created in the production and shipment of different food products.8
When you eat…
Cooking at home is a very effective way to reduce your carbon emissions, but sometimes we need to eat out, whether it be for of a lack of time, convenience of distance, or just celebrating a special occasion. For these situations there are many ways to be prepared and stop carbon in its tracks!
Plan ahead when dining out
Make sure that when you splurge, you are doing it right! Avoid takeout containers by having a sit-down meal in a restaurant, and double check that you will be given reusable utensils as opposed to the disposable alternative. The plastics that many takeout containers are made of are seldom recycled and can take upwards of a thousand years to decompose. For maybe a thirty-minute use, that’s not exactly a fair trade.
Bring your own utensils
Invest in a reusable straw! Affordable packs can be found online, and in terms of the fork, spoon and knife, you don’t need to buy a new aesthetically pleasing bundle (unless you’d like to, of course) – the ones already in your home will do! Simply keep a fork and spoon in your car or in your purse for emergencies and when your only option is takeout.
Drink your own water
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to be eco-friendly is to invest in a water bottle, whether it’s super fancy and insulating or just a generic one, they get the same job done – no one is using a plastic bottle! Especially if you are the type of person to skip soda when eating out, having a water bottle handy can be super helpful, and is a wonderful alternative to single use cups when you intend on drinking H2O.
Your groceries and eating habits have a major impact on the environment, and you have the power to make a real difference in your personal carbon footprint by making small changes to your everyday life. You can make educated choices that are better for you and the planet, and rest easy in knowing your actions have the power to change our world for the better. By setting an example and informing others of what you now know, your climate positive impact can be even greater – and the oceans and our planet thank you for it.