Personal Impact: Does It Really Matter What You Do?

This post is by Sheryl Canter, an Online Writer and Editorial Manager at Environmental Defense.

Have you ever been on weight-loss diet, gone to a function with delicious-looking desserts, and told yourself, "One cookie isn’t going to make me fat"? One cookie may not make you fat, but how many "cookie moments" occur during your day, your week? If your answer is always that this one little cookie can’t hurt, you will not lose weight.

Conserving energy is sort of like going on a group diet where every person, dozens of times a day, has a "cookie moment". Does it really matter if I leave on the lights in my home when I go out? Does it really matter if I don’t recycle this container? Does it really matter if I keep my chargers plugged in when not in use?

The short answer is yes, it matters. There are a myriad of things you can do to conserve energy and fight global warming. Each action by itself is small and painless, but taken together the effect can be huge. Here’s a list of easy things you can do that will make a big difference.

Most of the electricity in this country comes from coal-fired plants that emit huge amounts of carbon, so:

  • Turn off the light when you leave a room, and turn off all the lights when you leave your home.
  • Change your bulbs to compact fluorescents (now – don’t wait for the old bulbs to burn out).
  • Don’t leave chargers plugged in when not in use. They suck up electricity just sitting there.
  • Buy energy-efficient appliances.
  • Turn off your computer at night rather than leaving it in stand-by mode.
  • Many appliances, such as televisions, can’t be completely turned off except by unplugging them. Appliances in stand-by mode account for 5 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. To turn them off completely, use a power strip.

Paper comes from trees, which suck up carbon, so:

  • Buy recycled paper products. Visit our Paper Calculator to learn more about why this helps.
  • Use only the paper towels and toilet paper that you need.
  • Only print out emails and articles when you really need to.
  • Recycle paper – newspapers, magazines, scratch paper, junk mail, everything you can. You can cancel unwanted catalogs at Catalog Choice.

  • Bring a reusable shopping bag with you to the store.

Manufacturing products of any kind uses energy and creates emissions, so:

  • Don’t buy things you don’t need and won’t use.
  • Borrow from your local library instead of buying books you’ll read only once.
  • Give away or recycle what you no longer want. Give old eyeglasses to your local eyeglass store – they can pass them onto people in need. Bring your old cell phone back to the cell phone store for recycling. Give away old appliances, computers, clothes, etc. Earth 911 can help you find recycling resources.

It takes a significant amount of electricity to supply municipal water, so:

  • Take showers instead of baths, and don’t linger in the shower.
  • Turn off the water while brushing your teeth.
  • Don’t run dish washers and clothes washers half full.
  • Don’t water your lawn unnecessarily.
  • Fix leaky faucets, and install low-flow faucets and shower heads.
  • Check out more water conservation tips from the EPA.

Heating and cooling use a lot of electricity, so:

  • Make sure your house is adequately insulated. If snow melts quickly off your roof, you need more insulation in the attic.
  • Wrap your water heater in insulation.
  • Wash clothes in cold water – they will still be clean, and they’ll last longer, too.
  • Line-dry clothes if you can, instead of using a clothes dryer.
  • Keep your thermostat down in winter and up in summer – don’t overheat or overcool your home.

Cars are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, so:

  • Group your errands so you only drive into town once for all the things you need to buy and do.
  • Have your car tuned regularly, and check tire pressure. An
    untuned engine burns more gas, as do cars with underpressurized tires.
  • When buying a new car, buy the vehicle with the best mileage that meets your needs.
  • Walk, bike, or use public transportation instead of driving whenever possible. If you have to drive, carpool where possible.
  • See our previous post for more tips for cleaner driving.

If you’re willing to go to greater lengths, that’s wonderful. See "No Impact Man" for how a New Yorker completely eliminated his carbon footprint. Many homeowners are finding that lowered costs and state subsidies are making solar panels much more affordable. But you don’t have to do the hard stuff to make a difference. Every little bit counts.

You can find more tips and ideas on our Fight Global Warming Web site.

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  1. Posted November 14, 2007 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Many of us are homeowners. Many of us are considering a potential remodel of our home, or are already in the process of remodeling. Making a few different choices during the remodel process can also help our planet, and remove the landfill burden in the future. Examples include: sustainable countertops, high-efficiency toilets, sustainable roofing products, and eco-friendly insulation products.


  2. Drwg
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    “You can cancel unwanted catalogs at Catalog Choice.” You can also turn off the delivery of paper statements and bills in favor of checking them online. It’s a small step but like junk mail, conserves trees and fuel required to move that around the country.

  3. Posted November 16, 2007 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    Ms. Sheryl Canter champions an approach that may
    be the most solid start toward healing. Individual
    accountability coupled with strategic management
    fundamentally addresses the issue.

    Personally, I’m calling for a greater reliance on
    electronic books within the publishing industry.
    Not only do they save trees, they also offer
    much functionality:

    Let’s all care to make a difference!

  4. Posted November 16, 2007 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    These are great ideas – electronic statements, electronic books (though I have to admit I personally like paper books very much). I should have asked at the end of my post for people to add to the list. Thanks!

  5. Posted November 20, 2007 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Here are some things I came up with to personally conserve energy. I can be contacted by a contact form on this list. Any help adding to it is appreciated. Some ideas are the same ones already listed in this blog. Click on:


  6. Posted November 20, 2007 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Here are some things I think we can do individually and collectively to become more ‘green’ and pollute less (more ideas will be added at times):

    1) Turn off or reduce streetlights late at night, unless a place is open all night. I’ve seen small towns across the country lit up like daytime in the middle of the night with no one awake. What a waste of electricity. Put them on a timer and turn off at midnight.

    2) Turn off decorative lights and floodlights on monuments and businesses late at night.

    3) Plan your automobile trips better. For instance, stop at the grocery store on you way home from work instead of going home and going back out.

    4) If feasible, take the bus, train or streetcar to work. Better yet, if you live within a mile of work, walk.

    5) If you have Amtrak or other passenger train service, take the train between cities instead of flying. Oak Ridge National Laboratory says Amtrak uses 18 percent less energy (BTUs) than driving per passenger.

    6) Fly as little as possible. Jets place CO2 high up in the atmosphere in their contrails and may cause high-level Cirrus clouds to form quicker than they would normally. High level clouds act like a blanket and warm the earth, whereas low clouds have a cooliong effect.

    7) Use tap water (with a filter if wanted). This saves the emissions that bottling water plants cause and also saves the cost and emissions of transport of the water to stores. Also the plascic bottles use energy to produce and clutter up landfills.

    8) Turn down your thermostat in the winter by 2 degrees and turn up in the summer 2 degrees.

    9) Whenever possible, shop at a local farmers market or buy from stores that carry locally-grown vegetables and fruit. This saves tons of CO2 emissions by saving on transportation.

    10) Buy a car only big enough for your family. Why have a large SUV when there’s only one or two in your family. This not only saves gas money, but saves on emissions.

    11) Not only turn off your computer and TV when not in use, but also unplug them. Even though they aren’t on, they still draw some electricity when left plugged in.

    12) Businesses should encourage tele-commuting (working from home or a nearby office instead of driving to work). This would save the energy and CO2 emissions from commuting to work.

    13) Broadcasters should consider going off the air late at night like they used to do back in the 1950s. Why have thousands of TV or radio stations on 24/7? Put the planet to bed at night.

    14) Change as many incandescent light bulbs in your house or business as possible to flourescent or LED (which use even less electricity and last longer than flourescent and don’t have any mercury or other pollutants. I understand they will become available and be omnidirectional by the end of 2008). As a last resort, use smaller wattage incandescents.

    15) Don’t use leaf blowers. What a waste of energy and cause of unnecessary greenhouse gases. Use a RAKE or BROOM to clean your driveway or sidewalk and quit polluting with the electric or gas-driven leaf blowers.

    16) Manufacturers should stop using the large, thick plastic containers that seal contents of packages, such as music CDs, flash drives, ink cartridges, etc. Use recycled paper as packaging instead and put a theft-coded device on them instead. The plastic wrapping is hard to get off, wastes energy getting produced, clutters up landfills.

    17) Never purchase the fresh “Catch of the Day” at seafood restaurants. The transportation of these fresh fish creates tons of greenhouse gas emissions, especially if you live in the middle of the country.

  7. rikdude
    Posted June 17, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Here’s one idea that will make the BIGGEST impact on ALL the ills we see going on with the Global Environment. Oddly enough I see no topic heading for this…well maybe not so odd.

    Anyway, it appears that the single thing that can be done is stop living out the egomaniacal idea that this planet was made for us. We continue to propagate our species like there’s no tomorrow, pun intended. Nature depends on balance and diversity of all living things and as we continue to tip that balance and mess with the diversity we will pay dearly. “Man did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it.”

    We have been living outside the laws of nature for far to long. Of all living this on this planet not one of them has had a bigger impact then humans. When we as humans decided what on the planet gets to live and what gets to die, we sealed our own fate. This was once left to nature but apparently we thought nature had it all wrong.

    Unless we truly understand that the laws of nature apply to EVERY living thing we will continue to live out this crazy nightmare, continue having babies, continue tipping the balance and messing with the diversity of nature until eventually, and it will happen sooner than later, the laws of nature will take care of all of it for us and it won’t be pretty.

  8. Posted October 1, 2008 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    How about adding rain water harvesting to your backyard? This can be done by installing a rain barrel.

  9. Posted May 23, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    What I dont understand is how youre not even more popular than you are now.  Youre just so intelligent.  You know so much about this subject, made me think about it from so many different angles.  Its like people arent interested unless it has something to do with Lady Gaga!  Your stuffs great.  Keep it up!