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What is your Environmental Footprint?

Did you know the average American uses 11,040 kilowatts of energy, 441 gallons of gasoline and 4,759 cubic feet of natural gas each year? Multiply that by the US population and you’ve got an extremely large energy need – one that may or may not be sustainable over a long period of time.

The food you eat, gas used in your car, the size of your home, number of hours spent on a plane this year, the amount of trash you generate and more all impact your environmental footprint, and determine how much global resources (land, water, fossil fuels) are needed to fuel your lifestyle. The energy and carbon that each person requires is called your environmental footprint, or, the impact of your natural resource use on the planet. Want to find out yours? Take this interactive quiz!

If you’re like us, you will be shocked to find out what your environmental foot print is after taking the quiz. Even though we like to think of ourselves as eco-conscious folks, we still have some work to do in cutting down our transportation, choosing more local food and recycling and reusing household materials we have instead of purchasing new. Want to reduce your footprint with us? Here are some great tips:

1. Buy organic and local.

When possible, buy organic or “fair trade.” There’s a better chance the food was grown in an eco-friendly way, and if it’s locally grown, it didn’t have to travel that far. This also goes for those double lattes — coffee often has a large carbon footprint because of the distance those beans had to travel to get here, and how they were produced. Also, try eating at restaurants that serve locally produced or seasonal foods.

2. Pay attention to packaging.

When out shopping, try to go to stores or co-ops that keep packaging to a minimum. For example, you may choose to buy the loose tomatoes rather than boxed or plastic-wrapped tomatoes. Also, take reusable bags to the grocery store. When it comes to resources, plastic is better than paper — but a reusable cloth tote-style bag is better still.

3. Ditch bottled water.

Bottled water has a huge carbon footprint — it’s bottled at one location in small plastic bottles and shipped all over. Try buying a reusable water bottle or canteen for your water. Also, a lot of restaurants have made the move from offering fancy bottled water, usually imported from an exotic source, to using in-house filtration systems that make tap water a good choice. Many plastic water bottles are recycled, but most are not, making the footprint even bigger.

4. Energy-proof your home.

We’re not talking major upgrades here… Make sure all of your windows close properly and that the attic in your home is properly insulated. This can save you big bucks on your energy bill. Also, keep your heating and cooling systems properly maintained, and switch to reusable filters when possible. Try switching from incandescent to compact florescent light bulbs. Compact florescent light bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than our normal light bulbs and last much longer. Compared to regular bulbs, the fluorescents are more expensive, but they will eventually pay for themselves due to lower energy costs.

5. Go native.

Use native plant species to landscape around your home or business. The plants will probably grow better in a familiar environment, and the plants may also get shipped a shorter distance to get to your local nursery. Also, use organic soil when planting — it’s made using more eco-friendly methods, and uses less resources. And remember, green plants are a good way to offset carbon. So plant something, anything — it helps.

6. Window shop.

If you have the urge to spend, try window shopping or browsing first. This helps ensure you are only buying things you really need, or really want, and you’re not just impulse buying. Remember, every item in a store, no matter how small, has a footprint — so if we are conscious consumers, we can reduce our own footprint and the overall footprint of our nation.

7. Take a direct flight.

If you need to travel by airplane, try taking a direct flight when at all possible. Your impact is reduced when you take one flight, as opposed to hopping on a couple or more passenger jets to reach your final destination. You might also feel a little less harried when you arrive, because changing planes can be a real hassle.

8. Switch water heaters to vacation mode.

Most water heaters have a “vacation” setting for when you are away from home for an extended period of time. Switching to that “away” mode still keeps the water warm, but will not use the energy it takes to keep a tank full of piping-hot water. Enjoy your vacation even more, knowing that you’re saving money and reducing your footprint.

9. Unplug it!

Unplug appliances that you don’t use frequently. Most electronics have a standby mode that siphons energy even when not in use. Cell phone chargers, laptops, televisions, stereos — there’s a whole list of items that should be unplugged when not in use. Try using a power strip for groups of electronic items. One flick of the switch and it’s all off.

10. Keep your car.

With gas prices seemingly always on the rise, it’s tempting to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle. But if your older-model car is in good condition, you’re better off keeping it in good running condition. Even hybrids create a big footprint when they’re built, so consider driving that old clunker for a little while longer. Also, try more eco-friendly modes of transport when possible, like buses, trains, a bicycle, telecommuting or even walking.

11. Chuck your microwave.

Admittedly, this is a bit drastic. But this speaks more to those convenient frozen dinners some rely on because of their busy schedules. A freezer full of meals is actually more energy-intensive — it costs more to freeze foods, ship them cold, display them frozen in the grocery store and keep them frozen in our homes. So while the modern convenience of the microwave and the Lean Cuisine is enticing, it’s much more resource-intensive. Cook fresh food when you can, and you’ll also find yourself eating out less often.

12. Use cold water.

No, not in the shower… but maybe in the washer. Try using cold water to launder things that don’t need to be cleaned in hot or warm water. It takes a lot of energy to heat up water — multiply that by the number of loads, and that’s a big footprint. Most major detergent makers sell detergents designed to have the same cleaning power as with regular soap. Try washing mixed loads in cold water, too.

13. Have the family over.

Family gatherings are a good way to spend some quality time with loved ones, with very little carbon impact. Cooking and entertaining for larger groups is more efficient and, per person, a lot less expensive. And who can put a price on these “carbon freebies”?

14. Make time for errands.

A lot of us try to run errands in-between work and other commitments. Try bundling errands together to reduce how far you need to travel. Going back-and-forth to the same part of town on different days to run errands uses more gas than if you planned and did everything in the same area all at once. And if you really want to make it a “carbon freebie,” try carpooling and running errands with a buddy.

15. The Three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

It seems like something from a kid’s sing-a-long, but sometimes we lose sight of just how much we buy. Try buying less, and reusing and fixing things when you can instead of buying new. And for a lot of people, recycling is as easy as rolling the trash bin to the curb. Just remember to do it at work, too.

Tips to reduce your foot print from American Public Media.

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