Ready to help the environment? Start with these 5 steps

News about climate change can feel disheartening the more we learn about environmental shifts that lead to wildfires, melting ice caps, species depletion, drought, and expanded disease prevalence. Although it can all seem overwhelming taking small steps to be more environmentally conscious may have a bigger effect than you might think.

According to Columbia Climate School, reducing climate change impacts through government policy and corporate strategy is essential, but individual actions do matter.

"As individuals, we make choices about our own activities, and inevitably, they involve choices about resource consumption," writes Steve Cohen, a director of the university's environmental science and policy program. "Individuals are responsible for thinking about their impact on the environment and, when possible, minimize the damage they do to the planet."

Becoming environmentally conscious is a good starting point toward changing your habits. Here are five shifts you can make today to be a better citizen of the planet.

1. Consider your water usage

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average family in the United States uses over 300 gallons of water every day. Although it might seem like there's plenty of fresh water available, the EPA notes that less than 1 percent of the Earth's water is available for human use.

Having an idea of how much you use can help you transition toward better conservation practices. For example, you might take shorter showers, water your lawn less often, wait to do laundry until you have a full load, and check your pipes for leaks.

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2. Buy nontoxic cleaners

Although it might not seem like the heavily scented cleaning products under your sink are much of an environmental risk, they might be contributing to the overall toxic load in indoor air.

Switching to eco-friendly, green cleaners is a good habit that can affect your personal health as well, since you're not breathing in volatile compounds. You can also make your own cleaners from items you probably already have on hand, such as vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, and hydrogen peroxide.

3. Get energy efficient

Much like being aware of your water usage, staying mindful about other utilities can not only help the planet, but also your energy bills. There are numerous small changes for better efficiency that add up, including:

  • Washing clothes in cold water
  • Getting an energy audit from your utility company
  • Sealing cracks, gaps, and leaks, especially around windows
  • Replacing air filters in your furnace regularly so the system runs efficiently
  • Using dishwashers and clothes washers and dryers in the evening, which reduces strain on the power grid during peak hours
  • Install a programmable thermostat that lowers your heat if you're gone during the day
  • Buy appliances that have a high Energy Star rating

The EPA notes that energy efficiency can lower greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, as well as stabilizing electricity prices and availability.

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4. Choose low-impact food

A common refrain when it comes to environmental shifts is to stop eating meat altogether, due to the effects of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. While those concerns are certainly valid, a better strategy might be to pivot toward buying from farmers who use regenerative agriculture methods, which rely on grazing animals for better soil health.

Healthy soil is an important part of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and is crucial for utilizing water efficiently and providing food security, according to Rodale Institute. Supporting farmers who take a regenerative approach can help reverse climate change, the organization notes.

Whether you choose to go meatless or not, another major shift is to buy fruits and vegetables that are sourced locally whenever possible. Even if produce is organic, which is beneficial for reducing toxic pesticides in the environment, it's still problematic when it's coming from halfway around the world, due to the carbon footprint involved in shipping.

5. Bike, walk, rideshare, and use public transportation

A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the EPA. While you may not be able to give up driving completely, especially if you live in a more rural location, becoming more aware of driving habits can be helpful for reducing your usage.

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For example, you might combine your errands into one day to lower mileage, or ride your bicycle more often—bonus, you'll boost your health through more activity. Consider using public transportation or doing a rideshare to work. The EPA also suggests getting regular tune-ups so your vehicle runs more efficiently, and considering one that's less polluting like a hybrid or electric vehicle.

It might seem like little habits such maintaining your car, watering your lawn less often, turning off lights you don't need, and shopping at the farmers market don't make much of a difference, but they really do add up over time and make you feel good about doing more to support the planet's health.

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