Top climate scientists think we have about 12 years to get global carbon emissions under control or risk far greater environmental and human costs.
The U.N. panel’s recent report warns that global warming needs to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels to stem higher rates of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty.
The call for “rapid and far-reaching” change seems overwhelming. Are there realistic goals for individuals and families that would help, perhaps some eco-friendly New Year’s resolutions? Spokane-area environmental leaders say yes, little steps can go far.
“The top three things a family can do to help is to work on reducing waste, reducing energy use and reducing toxic chemicals from going into the wastewater stream,” said Kara Whitman, Washington State University instructor for its School of the Environment.
Jerry White Jr., Spokane River Keeper program director, said the high amount of discarded plastics from bags and bottles is lately getting more attention as an emerging pollutant, “because so much of it is in the environment.”
So, he said people can try to remember taking homemade bags or reusable store bags into a shop.
“Reduce the use of single-use disposable plastic bags, or stop using them frankly,” White said. “We’re finding just amazing amounts of this plastic in the environment now, including as biodegraded micro-plastic that ends up now in our waterways.”
Here are seven other ideas to reduce a household’s carbon footprint in the New Year:
Whitman suggests families think about buying more recycled, thrift-store or traded household items whenever possible. About those bags to carry items home, some stores give cents back if you reuse bags, she said.
Also give scrutiny to the product’s packaging, she added. Is the packaging something that can be recycled, or can it go into the compost bin?
Another simple, yet important step is to watch what goes down the drain and leaks off vehicles, White suggested. Don’t dispose of medicines, paints, solvents or other chemicals down drains.
“Those need to be disposed of properly,” he said. “If you have an oil leak on your car, fix it. An amazing amount of hydrocarbons end up in our waterways because we have leaky vehicles.”
The Spokane River Forum offers an online a waste disposal directory for both Spokane and Kootenai counties. You can find out more about what is considered toxic and how to dispose of items properly.
White also advises that people go to a professional car wash. “Don’t wash your car on the driveway or hard surface,” he said. “Go to a car wash where the water is recycled.”
Or do like in the old days. “You can rinse your car off on your lawn. That’s a natural filter.”
Reduce waste and energy use
More scratch cooking is healthy and reduces packaging that’s thrown away for convenience foods. Families also can look up their community’s recycling rules and make a plan. Some recycle centers don’t take glass anymore, Whitman said. “There just isn’t a market for it.”
“That’s another thing your family can do is just understanding recycling in your community,” she said. “If you put something that contaminates your recycling bin, the contents might go into the landfill.”
Also consider times when you can turn the thermostat down, Whitman said.
“You can wash your clothes in cold water, which is better for your clothes and also doesn’t require energy to heat that water,” she added.
Sometimes you can skip use of the dryer and opt for a clothing hanger rack instead to cut energy use.
“There are wool drying balls that you can throw into the dryer that are said to reduce time,” she said.
Local utility companies or municipalities offer resources, and sometimes rebates, if residents buy energy-efficient appliances, replace windows or even install toilets that use less water.
“Our town does a low-flow toilet program that has a rebate; that’s in Pullman,” she said.
Eat less meat and buy local foods
Buying more food locally greatly reduces carbon use, Whitman said, mainly because there’s less energy required to produce and transport that food.
Families can look to buy from area farmers markets or check if items in stores are produced regionally or at least in the state.
“To grow meat requires you grow food to feed that meat, so there’s more energy in the whole process. You have to grow more food that takes water and energy, and you have to transport that food to the animals,” Whitman said.
“But there are ways of growing meat that doesn’t have as big of an impact, like buying from local farmers and when animals are grass-fed; that’s a lot lower energy input.”
When you’re away from the house, or for long periods when certain appliances won’t be used, it can pay to unplug. Think of your phone, laptop and toaster.
“Anything that’s plugged into the wall will draw energy off the energy grid, like your laptop or your phones. Once they are charged, it’s not going to continue being charged but it’s going to continue to draw energy, which adds up when everyone else is doing the same thing.
“It’s not practical to unplug TVs, but some things we can unplug when we’re not using them.”
Think ahead to lawn season
The city of Spokane now offers a credit on a city utility bill after removing a lawn in your yard and replacing it with water-smart plants and mulch. The program requires a minimum removal of 300 square feet. For details, visit www.iwac.us/news/city-of-spokane-landscape-rebate-program/.
The city also has a credit program and information on more efficient indoor water use, my.spokanecity.org/publicworks/water/slow-the-flow/.
Other communities have similar “zero-scaping” programs that encourage residents to replace big lawns with natural vegetation and plants that require less water.
This is a small step, but an important one, White said. “We’re finding water consumption goes way up in the summer, and most folks will water the lawn for longer than it needs. After a few minutes, the roots of the grass have gotten what they need.”
Beewax and Yeti, anyone?
This tip circles back to plastic use, which Whitman said is a tough environmental challenge because it’s so pervasive in U.S. households.
However, some popular manufacturers of water bottles – from Yeti to Hydro Flask – have improved convenience and ability to carry water everywhere, Whitman said.
Other families are looking into making or buying beeswax covers to cover dishes in the fridge.
“Then you don’t have to use plastic wrap,” she said. “The ones you can buy online last for about a year and are biodegradable.”