Dear EarthTalk: My New Year's Resolution is to reduce my "carbon footprint" to help fight global warming. Do you have suggestions for ways I can make good on my promise?
—Carrie, via e-mail
There's never been a more urgent time to reduce your carbon footprint. With the U.S. government still opting out of mandatory emissions cuts, it's up to every individual, business owner and city or state government to take steps. So here are 10 ways to get you started in the new year:
(1) Step-up Recycling and Composting. Recycling prevents carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by saving the energy it takes to make products from new materials and by saving the energy it takes to incinerate or landfill what we discard. And composting food scraps turns organic material back into fertile soil, which itself is an efficient carbon "sink." To get started, see: Earth 911 and How to Compost
(2) Stay close or stay put: About half the CO2 we generate comes from our car trips, so walk, bike or take mass transit instead. Air travel also produces huge amounts of CO2, so the less you fly, the smaller your carbon footprint. See: Culture Change
(3) Eat organic and local: Stick to foods produced organically and you prevent harmful pesticides and fertilizers from polluting air, waterways, soils and family members. And if the food is grown nearby, thousands of pounds of CO2 weren't emitted getting it to your grocery store. See: 100 Mile Diet
(4) Buy green power. Your power company might just source part of its supply from renewable sources like hydro-electric or wind, and will sell it to customers who know to ask for it. See: Green E
(5) Change out your lightbulbs. A compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) uses less than a third of the energy of an incandescent bulb to produce the same amount of light—and it lasts 10 times longer. And some CFLs now have 3-way capabilities and can be dimmed. Visit Energy Federation, Inc. at: EFI
(6) Upgrade and unplug: Upgrading any appliances (including computers and TVs)? Be sure to look for the "Energy Star" logo, which only energy efficient models can wear. Also, turn off appliances when not in use to prevent wasting so-called phantom energy coming in off the grid. See: Energy Star
(7) Adjust your thermostats: If you don't need a sweater indoors, your heat is too high. Likewise, in hot weather turn down the AC. Also, keeping your hot water at no more than 120 degrees—the minimum temperature to keep the water bacteria-free—is another way to save energy, money and the environment.
(8) Plant a tree
or 300! An average tree stores 13 pounds of carbon per year; a mature tree can absorb upwards of four times that amount. Just 300 trees can counterbalance the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that one person produces in a lifetime. So get to work! See: American Forests
(9) Buy offsets: Many organizations sell "carbon offsets," whereby you pay a voluntary fee to offset your daily CO2 emissions. The money usually goes to develop alternative, renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar. See: The Climate Trust, Native Energy and Sustainable Travel International
(10) Get involved: Donate time or money to groups working to fight global warming. Just about all green groups devote some work to climate change, and they need your help. See: Volunteer Match
Dear EarthTalk: I can't understand why it is not mandatory to recycle in the U.S. In my home we recycle 80 percent and toss 20 percent and I am trying to improve those percentages. What needs to happen to make recycling the law of the land?
—Vicki, Geneva, NY
Mandatory recycling is a hard sell in the U.S., where the economy runs largely along free market lines and landfilling waste remains inexpensive and efficient. When the research firm Franklin Associates examined the issue a decade ago, it found that the value of the materials recovered from curbside recycling was far less than the extra costs of collection, transportation, sorting and processing incurred by municipalities.
Plain and simple, recycling still costs more than landfilling in most locales. This fact, coupled with the revelation that the so-called "landfill crisis" of the mid-1990s may have been overblown—most of our landfills still have considerable capacity and do not pose health hazards to surrounding communities—means that recycling has not caught on the way some environmentalists were hoping it would.
However, many cities have found ways to recycle economically. They have cut costs by scaling back the frequency of curbside pickups and automating sorting and processing. They've also found larger, more lucrative markets for the recyclables, such as in developing countries eager to reuse our cast-off items. Increased efforts by green groups to educate the public about the benefits of recycling have also helped. Today, dozens of U.S. cities are diverting upwards of 30 percent of their solid waste streams to recycling.
While recycling remains an option for most Americans, a few cities, such as Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle, have made recycling mandatory. Seattle passed its mandatory recycling law in 2006 as a way to counter declining recycling rates there. Recyclables are now prohibited from both residential and business garbage. Businesses must sort for recycling all paper, cardboard and yard waste. Households must recycle all basic recyclables, such as paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass and plastic. Businesses with garbage containers "contaminated" with more than 10 recyclables are issued warnings and eventually fines if they don't comply. Household garbage cans with recyclables in them are simply not collected until the recyclables are removed to the recycling bin. Meanwhile, a handful of other cities, including Gainesville, Florida and Honolulu, Hawaii, require businesses to recycle, but not yet residences.
In perhaps the most famous case of a city putting recycling to the economic test, New York, a national leader on recycling, decided to stop its least cost-effective recycling programs (plastic and glass) in 2002. But rising landfill costs ate up the $39 million savings expected. As a result, the city reinstated plastic and glass recycling and committed to a 20-year contract with the country's largest private recycling firm, Hugo Neu Corporation, which built a state-of-the art facility along South Brooklyn's waterfront. There, automation has streamlined the sorting process, and its easy access to rail and barges has cut both the environmental and transportation costs previously incurred by previously using trucks. The new deal and new facility have made recy
cling much more efficient for the city and its residents, proving once and for all that responsibly run recycling programs can actually save money, landfill space and the environment.