Simple ways to go green

By Portia Bharath,  Columnist

During the summer, I was given the opportunity to conduct research at the University of Michigan at its very own Center for Sustainable Systems. My project title was “The Relative Effectiveness of Common Green Behaviors.”

It sounds a bit intimidating and maybe even complicated, but I can assure you that it is something you have probably thought about before. If you have ever placed a bottle in a recycling bin or turned off the water while brushing your teeth, you have “participated” in a green behavior – which is just an action people take to help the environment or, at the very least, minimize harm to the environment. 

With climate change remaining a hot topic in the news, media companies are overrun with articles urging the everyday citizen to participate, do their part, and fight to save the environment. It can be overwhelming, quite frankly, and the average American is so preoccupied with trying to keep up with the hustle and bustle of life that it’s challenging to remember every little item on that “50 Things You Can Do to Fight Climate Change” listicle that they read two weeks ago. The goal of my project was to quell some of those anxieties – I want people to understand that small habits (or even one habit!) can have a significant effect on their personal carbon footprint, and to encourage people to make manageable changes to their everyday routines that will decrease their negative influence on the environment. 

Using national averages and data points, I was able to evaluate four common green behaviors and compare them to each other in terms of their impact. In order from the most effective to the least, one person can: take alternative modes of transportation to work, eat less beef, switch their household light bulbs from incandescent to LED, and avoid disposable products like coffee cups. 

  • Driving to and from work or school everyday adds up, especially if your commute is anything like the average American’s commute of 16 miles one way. Taking the bus or train significantly reduces the impact as there is less carbon dioxide being emitted per passenger.
  • America’s heavy beef consumption is one of the biggest factors contributing to the country’s large carbon footprint due to the beef raising methods and the high demand for it. The energy and resources used to feed the livestock take a toll on the environment, not to mention the amount of carbon and methane that is released during raising and processing. Although trite, having your family do Meatless Mondays or occasionally swapping a beef burger for a veggie burger can lessen your negative environmental impact.
  • Incandescent bulbs are significantly less energy efficient than LED bulbs and have a greater carbon footprint, which is one of the reasons why stores have been in the process of phasing them out for years.  In my research. I discovered that an incandescent bulb equal in light intensity to an LED would emit almost six times the greenhouse gases of the LED bulb, which would also produce less heat, avoiding extra energy costs. Switching all household bulbs to LEDs is a green behavior that also saves money in the long run.

Disposable coffee cups are extremely convenient but using one each day (or multiple times a day, depending on how intense your caffeine habit is) can dramatically increase a person’s carbon footprint. Reusable coffee mugs admittedly have a greater initial carbon footprint than disposable cups but eventually “pay off” with regular use – holding onto one mug for several years is better than purchasing a paper cup that was produced among billions of others, and most likely can’t be recycled due to the plastic coating that prevents the cup from disintegrating when wet. Some coffee shops even offer a slight discount to customers that bring in their reusable mugs, so this is another green behavior that could save money.

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