Wednesday, 6 January 2016

How To Reduce Your Environmental Footprint

Something we can all do for the earth is examine our personal negative impact on the environment (which in turn affects all of us) to see where we can make changes for the better. In other words, we can find out where our own responsibilities lie and where there are opportunities for us to help create a more balanced, healthier earth; working together with nature (as a part of the ecosystem) instead of against it (separate from nature).

In this article, I have listed some of the most common human behaviors that are harmful to our planet and ourselves. The mere length of this article demonstrates that humans (including you and me) are responsible for a lot of destruction and pollution that is happening around the world. But it also shows that there are many opportunities for us all to make a big difference and to have a positive impact on the environment. Many of these are also listed below. Let's make 2016 the year where we go from steady destruction to sustainable development.

Image from here


Since we can only survive for about 3 minutes without oxygen, clean & breathable air seems to be our most valuable resource. However, clean air is getting more and more scarce and is even already being sold in China (link here) because there (and in many other places on earth) it is no longer something that is freely available to all. Of course it is only a matter of time before we are all going to suffer the consequences of the pollution and environmental destruction that is happening all over the world -- unless we do something about it.

So what can we do about it? 
1. We can stop contributing to the pollution of the air (directly as well as indirectly (e.g. through purchases)), and 
2. We can stop contributing to the destruction of forests, overfishing and climate change

Trees and air (deforestation)
Trees not only produce oxygen, but they also filter the air and remove toxins, pollutants and other particles (source). They also absorb carbon dioxide, and thereby slow down human-caused climate change (see here for more benefits of trees). One person needs approximately 22 trees to supply him- or herself with enough fresh and clean air to survive. That means we would need a total of at least 163 billion trees, just for humans (source). This is only one of many reasons why we can't afford to lose the Amazon rainforest. Rainforests produce about 20% of the world's oxygen.

Fish and air (overfishing)
The other 80% of oxygen in our atmosphere comes from our oceans (from phytoplankton), so another main priority is keeping our oceans healthy. However, phytoplankton concentrations have already dropped a massive 30% since the 80s. It is very likely that this is largely due to overfishing, because that causes a growing population of zooplankton, which feeds on phytoplankton (source). Whatever the cause may be, the decreasing population of phytoplankton is a huge concern and yet it is hardly ever discussed in the media (like many other things that are cause for concern). In fact, oxygen levels in the earth's atmosphere have dropped significantly already, and suffocation will be one of our main concerns if we all continue living life the way we do now. Oxygen levels are around 21% compared to around 30-35% in prehistoric times. In densely populated, polluted city centres and industrial complexes, the oxygen levels could get as low as 12-15 %. These low oxygen levels also contribute to the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases. If oxygen levels drop to 6-7%, life can no longer be sustained. Read more about it here.

Carbon and air (climate change)
What's worse, new research suggests that the warming up of our oceans due to climate change could stop phytoplankton from producing any oxygen, which would mean instant death for all humans and many other species on earth. This could happen as early as 2100. Read more about this here. This is why averting climate change is an important focus at this moment. We can do this by minimizing the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. 
All suggested changes in this article will help to reduce your carbon footprint. The difference you are making can be deduced from the behavior's corresponding CO2(e)-emissions. The higher the carbon cost of a behavior, the higher the impact of change.

Everything we put into the air (car fumes, cigarette smoke, aerosols/sprays, etc. etc) goes somewhere. Unless it gets filtered out by trees, it stays in the atmosphere and just gets mixed in with all the rest. However, since the atmosphere is so huge, we may not even notice any effects of our polluting ways, because the deterioration progresses very slowly and we simply get used to it along the way. But eventually, as we keep on polluting and cutting down more and more trees, the atmosphere is just going to fill up completely with toxins. There will be no place left to escape to and no more fresh air to be found. So next time you are about to pollute the air in some way, ask yourself: Is it worth it?


As mentioned above, trees give us the oxygen we need and absorb CO2 (and pollutants) from the air. And yet an estimated 18 million acres of forest (7.3 million hectares), which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year (source). About 36 football fields worth of trees are lost every minute (World Wildlife Fund (WWF)). Forest loss contributes between 6 and 12 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions (Nature Geoscience) and this number can only go up unless the trees are replaced, because the effects are permanent and cumulative. On the other hand, planting just one tree will cause a CO2 reduction of 9 kg per year (source). These benefits are also permanent and cumulative (as long as the tree is alive).

The rainforest is home to approximately 50% of the world's species of animals and plants. Therefore, with the rapid loss of rainforest, we are also losing countless species forever. We are already losing between 10,000 and 100,000 species each year (source). The Amazon rainforest also holds a plethora of natural cures and remedies for all kinds of diseases that don't grow anywhere else, many of which have not even been discovered yet (source). However, at the rate of destruction in this moment, the Amazon rainforest will have been completely destroyed by 2150, and then half of the world's species will be gone forever.  

If these facts make you angry, then that is a good thing. It can be the fuel for change. Now let's see what we can all do to stop contributing to it... 

Leading causes of deforestation include overpopulation, poverty (which drives people to exploit the land for monetary gain) and unequal land access (source). More specifically (source):

* To make more land available for housing and urbanization
* To harvest timber to create commercial items such as paper, furniture and homes 
* To meet growing demand for consumer products, such as soy or the oil from palm trees (see additional source)
* To create room for cattle ranching (also to meet growing demand due to a growing population; read more about that here)
* Using trees for fuel

Are any of these reasons good enough to justify the destruction of nature and sacrificing clean, breathable air? All of these 'reasons' are the result of human expansion. But remember that we are part of nature, so essentially when we destroy nature, we are destroying ourselves too.

Since money seems to be the main motivator for destruction of rainforest (and other forms of destructive behaviors), it is very important to develop the ability to live a moneyless lifestyle. As long as you are dependent on money, you too can be bought. I never want to end up in a position where I have to choose between money for survival and saving the earth, so it is a relief for me to know that I can survive without money. (For more tips on moneyless living, check out my collection of posts on the topic here.) (NB: With all that I have learned, if I had to choose, I would still choose the planet. Choosing anything else would be madness.)

Until you adopt a moneyless lifestyle, there are many ways you can help put an end to deforestation (and natural destruction in general): 
* Curb overpopulation by not having kids or go for adoption instead. 
* Stop buying and using commercial items made from trees ((toilet)paper, furniture, homes); find alternatives!
* Stop buying products that have been produced using deforested rainforest soil (palm oil, soy products or beef).
* Meanwhile, learn all you can about moneyless living.


There are many ways in which we can help the earth by changing our food habits: minimizing food waste, buying locally produced (organic) foods, and sticking to a mostly plant-based diet.

Food waste
On average, one person wastes approximately 110 kilos of food a year (*in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; see table below). One third of that food is still packaged and unopened. So if we all did our part and stopped wasting so much food collectively, this could make a big difference. Read more about ways to prevent food waste here. The link also gives tips about how to prevent food waste by supermarkets (as a customer) and about setting up donation programs.

Image from this website
Are you a locavore? A locavore is someone who only buys locally produced foods. If you also go for organic and mostly plant-based foods, you can lower your environmental impact dramatically. By buying local, you cut out the impact of transport which is usually required to get products to a store near you (sometimes from as far as halfway around the world). Also, it means you eat with the seasons, which is better for your body, as it provides you with what you need at any given time (nature knows best). Furthermore, local shopping often means more fresh food and less packaging, which is another benefit for the earth as well as for you. Farmer's markets provide excellent opportunities for locavores. 


Meat, fish and dairy
The production and consumption of animal products has a huge environmental impact, and the conditions in which the animals are kept are often horrible. Animal products are not good for your health either (I recommend this book about the topic). So there are many reasons to consume less animal products or to go vegan. You can start as a part time vegan to see how it goes, or participate in a vegan challenge.
Of all animal products, the largest contributor to environmental destruction is beef. I recommend the documentary Cowspiracy, which explains why this is the case in great detail. You can watch the full documentary for FREE here (if the link gets deleted due to copyright, just do a new search on Youtube for 'Cowspiracy' and select the filter "length: long (>20 mins)"). 
One of the reasons why beef has such a high impact is the large amounts of methane cows produce, and another is the clearing of (rain)forests to make space for cattle. However, I want to stress that cows are not the problem here and we can't blame them as a species for all that is happening in the world (for example climate change). It is our massive consumption of beef that is a problem; not the cows. And if we are going to compare species for their total environmental impact, then humans would come out on top Every. Single. Time (way above any other species, including cows, and perhaps even way above all species combined). Keeping this in mind is important, because some of us are always trying to find a scapegoat. But unfortunately, we are the real culprits here. There is no way around that fact. Let's keep that in mind.
So again the underlying major issue here is overpopulation, which drives the demand for all products (including meat) up beyond the capacity of the earth. The production of meat (and beef in particular) also requires massive amounts of resources. For example, it takes about 13,000 liters of water to produce just 1 kilo of beef. Cows also require more land. The production of just one kilo of beef also produces about 27.1 kg of CO2e (source).
Lamb is not a good alternative either, because the carbon footprint of lamb is even higher than that of beef (source), but the global environmental impact of lamb is less than that of beef because the overall consumption of lamb is much less compared to beef. You can see an overview of CO2 produced by other types of food per kilo here, or check out the figure below.

So if you want to continue to eat meat or dairy, it is best to start a small farm and do it yourself. It is more fair to the animals and you don't let someone else do all the dirty work for you.


Fish is also not a sustainable option anymore, because overfishing is a huge problem for the ocean's ecosystems (source). In just 55 years, humans have managed to wipe out 90 percent of the ocean’s big fish. This causes major disruptions in marine ecosystems (source). Don't be fooled - there is no such thing as sustainable fish consumption. If a fish is marked 'sustainable' it will be hunted down to extinction soon enough (along with many others that are caught as bycatch) due to the high demand and rate of consumption in relation to the small amount of fish that are left in the oceans. Commercial fisheries also cause additional destruction by catching much more than they need and throwing it back overboard dead (after they are done sorting their catch). If you want to eat fish, go catch it yourself, find it in your nearby supermarket dumpsters, or grow them yourself. Please don't finance mass-extinctions.


Heating and warm water account for approximately 75% of a typical household's energy usage, so if you are like most people, there is a lot to be gained here in terms of decreasing your environmental footprint and saving money (the two often go together).

If you turn down your thermostat just 1 degree Celsius in winter (or 1.8 degree Fahrenheit), you can save about 130 kg (source) and even up to 310kg - 360kg of carbon dioxide emissions a year (source). Of course you can save even more if you set your thermostat to even lower temperatures or switch off your heating completely. Don't forget to put on a warm sweater instead, and use some of these extra tips to stay comfortable while saving energy and money:
- Block drafts by sealing doors and windows, and drawing curtains
- Wear warm clothes in layers and especially keep your hands, feet and head warm
- Share your house with more people or pets; it will keep the house warmer (e.g. invite friends or share your home with Couchsurfers)
- Keep moving; stay active
(For more information about staying warm with minimal to no heating, see here and here). 

Your main aim is to warm up your body in addition to keeping your living space warm. If you focus most of your efforts on generating and trapping body heat, then it matters less what the temperature inside your home is. This will also help you rediscover the pleasure of wearing warm, comfortable clothes inside. Another factor that makes a difference is the size of the area you want to keep warm. The smaller your home (or the area you live in), the easier it will be to keep it -and yourself- warm. So if there are any parts of the house you don't use, you can cut down significantly on your use of resources by switching off the heating in those parts and keeping the doors closed.

You know there is room for improvement in this area when.... it is winter and cold outside, but your home is still warm enough for you to -comfortably- walk around naked. If this is the case for you, then perhaps it is a good idea to consider the environmental cost of that and experiment with some changes. I turned the thermostat down three degrees (Celsius) a few days ago because I am the only person in the house right now, and didn't notice any difference in my comfort level. If anything, I feel more comfortable now, but that is probably because I added another layer of clothes to my usual outfit as a preventative measure.


Obviously, walking is the most sustainable option of all, as you don't require anything other than your own body. Riding a horse in the traditional, semi-nomadic way is a close second, although it is difficult to measure the exact environmental impact. But horse riding and walking as modes of transport have several advantages over other options. For example, they do not require the production of a vehicle. They also do not require the construction and maintenance of roads. All of this lowers their overall environmental impact. If -in addition- you feed the horse with foraged / found foods (instead of bought) and keep it somewhere outside (instead of in a stable), the environmental footprint of riding (and keeping) a horse is negligible. By the way, the carbon footprint of horses should not be confused with that of cows, which is much higher (source). (See also the section on food.)

Here is an overview of different modes of transport and their carbon cost:
Image from this website

Note that these numbers do not include the environmental cost of production and maintenance of the vehicle (which can be quite high; for electric cars, for example), so if you are considering to make a purchase, it is wise to do some research on this beforehand.

For me, walking and riding a bike or a horse are my favorite ways to travel. Walking, with no additional carbon cost other than the breathing, eating and anything else you would do normally as well, can be a surprisingly fast way to travel. Just 15 minutes of a leisurely stroll brings you at least 1 kilometer closer to your destination. If you walk briskly, you can increase that to 1.6 kilometers in 15 minutes. On a bicycle, you can easily cover 4 to 5 kilometers in 15 minutes, or 16 to 20 kilometers per hour, and without much effort (or with a bit more effort when there are hills). Plus you get a free workout, which saves you from having to go to a gym to keep fit.


We can (and probably should) all minimize our use of electricity and thereby reduce our environmental footprint (unless you produce your own clean electricity, in which case it doesn't matter so much). Here are some examples of the difference you can make by reducing your use of electricity:

* Air-drying clothes instead of using a dryer for six months of the year could cut annual CO2 emissions by 354 kg. Not having a dryer at all saves double the amount, plus the environmental cost for the dryer's production and maintenance. 
* Switching off lights when you don't need them and making use of natural daylight as much as possible, could remove another 171 kg of CO2 emissions each year (source). 
*In summer, instead of using air-conditioning, just ditch some layers of clothes and enjoy the warmth. Or go for a swim in a nearby lake, river or ocean to cool off. This could even serve as a substitute for showering, in which case you will save heaps of water as well.
* Browsing the internet on your phone instead of on a laptop uses up less electricity for charging the battery, and is therefore more environmentally friendly. Stick with older models, because they generally have a longer battery life. Unplug from the internet and appliances regularly: switch off your computer, phone and other devices.
* Also, instead of using your mobile to make calls you can use Skype or send text messages. Using your mobile for calls for an hour each day adds up to more than 1 tonne of CO2e per year – the equivalent of flying from London to New York, one way, in economy class (source).
* Skype can also help reduce your environmental footprint in other ways, such as by making virtual meetings possible. Read more about that here. Of course using the internet has a carbon footprint too, although it is a bit more complicated to calculate this. You can read more about it here.

The bottom line is that less is more, and that it is good to switch off any and all devices more often. Doing this regularly will also improve your health!


Since fresh water makes up only 2.5-3% of all water on earth and only 1% of that (0.007% of all water in the world) is easily accessible (source), it makes sense to treat this precious resource with care and use it only when we really have to. So let's make it a challenge to use less water. How can we save water?

The average person in Europe uses around 150 liter of water a day. In the US, this is 300 - 380 liters (80 to 100 gallons) per person a day. Most of this is used up by showering. A shower uses 60-80 liter per 5 minutes, while a bath is typically around 150-200 liters.

If you leave the water running while brushing our teeth for 3 minutes you lose 15 liters of water (so turning off the tap in between does make a difference!). Flushing the toilet uses up 6-26 liters (or 1.6 to 7 gallons) of perfectly clean drinking water each time. So if we flush the toilet less often, we can save a lot of water. Also, wearing your clothes more than the average two times before washing them can reduce the amount of water you use significantly. A load of washing uses around 151 liters (40 gallons) of water (source). Read more about the environmental footprint of a load of laundry here.

A leaking tap that loses one drop per second adds up to 100,000 liters of wasted water per year. This demonstrates how small, daily changes can make a big difference over time. So remember that no action is too small, and everything counts.

Dishwasher vs washing by hand 
A dishwasher generates 530-966 grams (or 1.16 to 2.13 pounds) of CO2 per load and uses 15-23 liters (or 4-6 gallons) of water per cycle. An average faucet flow is 7.6 liters (or 2 gallons) a minute, so if you can keep the flow under 2 minutes in total (and/or reuse your waste water) it is more environmentally friendly to do your dishes by hand. To achieve minimum water use, you should use a tub/bowl (or 2: one with soap for washing, and one without for rinsing). 

Other tips to save water
Combine actions, such as washing hands or collecting water for cooking while water is heating up for your shower or doing the dishes (if you don’t have instant hot water) . Or heat up the water for washing dishes in a kettle instead, to save water that is wasted in the warm-up phase. This way you can also easily measure the amount of water you use. Additionally, you can reuse water that is still relatively clean; for example, you can reuse water that was used for cooking food to water plants (it will have additional nutrients too), or drink it.

Combining actions: Boiling plums while making tea at the same time.


Shopping has become a very complicated matter (which is one of the reasons I have stopped doing it altogether). It is often difficult to know what damage you are contributing to by buying certain products if you have little background knowledge, so if you are just starting out 'being green', it may seem like you need to become an expert on so many levels that it almost feels like getting a degree. And that can feel quite discouraging. Depending on what your wants and needs are, it may require a bit of research in the beginning. However, it does pay off in the end.
So it is a good habit to check the environmental impact of the production and use of each product you are intending to buy. Where did it come from? What resources were used? What pollution was caused? How far did it (and all the parts that were used) have to travel? Are there more sustainable alternatives? Doing this as a habit will open your eyes to a whole hidden world. But it is good to know what hidden causes you are supporting with your money before you make any purchases. This gives you the power to change your mind, in case it is a cause you don't want to support.

Some guidelines to keep it simple are:
- Make it yourself / Do it yourself
- Less packaging is better
- Go for locally produced (hand-made)
- Avoid corporations and big businesses
- Choose the most 'primitive' option (e.g. hand mower instead of an electric mower (or grow food instead of lawns)) 

An average member of a wasteful society throws away about 30 kilos of clothes per year. This means a lot of hard work and resources get thrown away as well, because manufacturing clothes is quite a resource-intensive process: it takes about 2000 liters of water, a spoonful of chemicals and some cotton to make just one T-shirt. It then requires about 20,000 kilometers in flights (depending on where you live and where it was produced) just to get the components to the factory and the T-shirt back to you. One pair of jeans also travels half the globe (approx. 20,000 kilometers) if you count all stages from manufacture till sale. Also, many of the 'cheap' clothes in chain stores have a huge environmental footprint (see here for more info on the environmental impact of clothes and other products- the article provides a very helpful overview).

Be careful what you use on your body! Your skin absorbs most of the junk that you slather all over yourself and it ends up in your bloodstream too. Have you checked out the ingredients? Many of the ingredients can cause or contribute to neurological disorders (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis, etc.) such as aluminum in deodorant (source). I have thrown out all cosmetics and only use natural products on my body such as limes instead of deodorant, coconut oil or herbal tooth paste for dental care and home-made apple cider vinegar to clean my face and condition my hair (although I often don't even bother with the latter).


The average person generates about 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of waste per day. That amounts to 730 kilo (1606 lbs) per year (source). However, there are many things you can do to reduce waste. One thing you can do is start composting. Approximately two-thirds of most people's household waste can be composted. If you don't have a garden or access to land, then vermicomposting (composting with worms) is an option that can be done in an apartment. Alternatively, you could find a destination for your food scraps in the area. Perhaps there is a farm that could use it for their animals or as compost, or you could look for nearby urban gardens, which may have some use for it.

Waste causes a lot of environmental problems, because not all of it ends up in landfills. 70% of the waste in the oceans is plastic. Every year, about 1 million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals and seaturtles (plus many other animals) die from plastic waste. Another hazard to life on this planet is the plastic that is used in some cosmetics. Synthetic scrubs (with microbeads) end up in the ocean as well, and the beads are mistaken for food by some fish. This causes them to die. You may even end up eating them, plastic and all. Yes, when you are top of the food chain it makes even more sense to keep your environment clean. It all comes back to you.
Each year, 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean (source). For comparison: when recycled, 1,000 plastic bottles could create 1800 sweaters. Even better would be not to create the waste (plastic) in the first place; then it won't have to be recycled either and it can't end up in our oceans.

Here is an overview of how long it takes for trash to decompose:
Note that we haven't even discussed all the toxins and other pollutants yet that we distribute all over the world, into the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. Therefore, adopting a zero-waste lifestyle is a great thing you can do for the environment. Read more about the zero-waste lifestyle here.

Photo credit: here


We went from 1.5 billion people in 1900 to 7.4 billion people now (just over 100 years later...!). How did that happen? Many people say that poverty is a big reason for people to have more kids (even though having kids is very expensive). But there are many other reasons as well. It has a lot to do with our obsession with keeping everyone alive at all costs and with the industrial revolution (source). But it may have even more to do with societal norms: in many countries it is expected to have kids and there is even massive social pressure on couples to start a family. Fortunately, these norms are slowly shifting; more and more people are waking up to the impact of overpopulation and choose differenty.
(Read more about why overpopulation matters here.)
So, what can you do about overpopulation? You can choose not to have any kids or you can go for adoption instead. Adoption gives you all of the benefits of raising a child (sharing your skills, knowledge and values with them), without any of the devastating effects on the environment (or on your body). Also, there are many children who need and deserve a loving home. When I get more settled and develop a more stable lifestyle, I may also adopt one or more children. Another good thing about adoption is that there is no biological deadline for this: I can just do it whenever I feel completely ready for it. There is no rush.

Myths about adoption: Cost and time
A common misconception is that adoption is expensive, but if you go for adoption within your home country, it is often free or there is only a very minimal cost (e.g. source for USA). So money is no barrier. Another myth about adoption is that it takes a lot of time. However, the adoption process (again, non-international) takes about the same amount of time as a pregnancy.


Would your environmental footprint be the same as it is now if you didn't have a job (and if you didn't have to go anywhere)? And would your mode of transportation and your consumption of energy and other resources be the same if you did not have any money or income (or simply did not use it)? Probably not; I am guessing it would be a lot less. If you feel inspired to learn more about how you can escape the system, then check out this part of the blog about breaking free from society's grip

You do not need a job to survive, and you do not need money either. Remember that you always have a choice.


As you can see, there are many things we can all do for a better world. Living green is not always an easy task, and can require some dedication when we are making changes. This is why it is important to surround yourself with like-minded people, who inspire you to do better.

You have probably heard this quote: "If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room".

The same thing is true for sustainability. Making changes will be a lot easier if you surround yourself with environmentally conscious people. If you cannot find them in your immediate surroundings, then look for them online through blogs and forums. Just because you don't know any of them (yet) doesn't mean they are not out there. So find your tribe and get inspired.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead

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