What a Climate Scientist Has to Say About Your Everyday Home Habits

published Nov 18, 2021
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The Earth’s climate is changing, and fast — and people are constantly seeking ways to change their habits and consumption before it’s “too late.” There are many factors contributing to the worsening climate crisis, including the burning of fossil fuels, which has substantially increased the amount of greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere, thus warming the planet. These higher temperatures are causing a multitude of environmental issues, from extreme heat and cold to more severe weather to drought and rising sea levels. Biodiversity will also be adversely impacted; not only are species becoming endangered and going extinct, these shifts are affecting people around the world in catastrophic ways.

While individual habits are far from the only thing contributing to this crisis, your routine actions can make a difference. From doing the laundry to running the dishwasher to using the air conditioning in the summer months, there are many adjustments you can make in your everyday habits in a shift toward a more eco-conscious life. 

“Globally, we need to cut our carbon footprint in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to avoid the most adverse effects of climate change!,” Dr. Gregory A. Keoleian, the director at the Center for Sustainable Systems at The University of Michigan, tells Apartment Therapy. “We are facing a climate crisis and every household can play a big role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

But what changes are worth prioritizing over others? Here’s what Dr. Keoleian thinks of your everyday home habits, and how to make small swaps to make them even better.

Using Air Conditioning and Heaters

2021 was the hottest summer on record in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and climate change will contribute to colder, more intense winters too. Because of this, heating and cooling the home will likely be on your mind more than ever, but this can also contribute to some pretty significant energy use. 

“Heating and air conditioning account for over 40 percent of the primary energy consumption for homes on average in the United States,” Dr. Keoleian says. If you can, he recommends finding ways to make your home more energy-efficient, such as adding insulation to the attic and walls, installing smart thermostats, and replacing old appliances with Energy Star models.

Taking Long, Hot Showers

Long, hot showers and baths may be super relaxing, but they may keep you up at night if you’re worried about how your choices impact the environment. “The U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] estimates that showering by Americans accounts for about 17 percent of indoor water use,” Dr. Keoleian explained. “Standard showerheads today use 2.5 GPM [gallons per minute], so a 10 minute shower would use 25 gallons.”

Limiting your time in the shower not only conserves water, but also lessens the energy used to heat the water. Dr. Keoleian also recommended looking into installing a low-flow showerhead that emits 1.5 GPM or less.

Running the Dishwasher 

Running the dishwasher is okay, so long as you do so in an eco-conscious way. “A lot of water is wasted with people running their tap while rinsing and washing dishes,” Dr. Keoleian says. If you can, it may be worth skipping the pre-rinse prior to loading them in the dishwasher, and to only run the dishwasher when you have a full load. 

Dr. Keleian also noted a study conducted by the University of Michigan and Whirlpool, Corp., which found that deselecting the “heated dry” option can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions linked to dishwashers. 

Using Gas Appliances 

After water heating, appliances use up a significant portion of an average person’s energy use at home. Replacing old appliances such as refrigerators can lower your electric bill and save energy, and switching from gas to electric appliances makes a big difference. 

“Many cities are encouraging and even mandating all-electric appliances in new buildings,” Dr. Keoleian says. If your kitchen is in need of a refresh, it can be worth looking into making the investment in an electric stove, oven, clothes dryer, and/or water heater to help reduce your home’s overall emissions.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Meal Prepping

Meal-prepping can help you save time, money, and sanity — and it’s also a great way to reduce food waste, a major environmental concern. “Americans on average generate 4.9 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) per person per day,” says Dr. Keoleian. “Food is responsible for over 20 percent of MSW and can be reduced by more effective meal planning to limit wasted edible food.”

If you’re not yet planning and preparing your breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks ahead of time, and are constantly throwing out spinach as a result, it might be time to consider giving meal prepping a shot. Before you sketch out next week’s meal plans, though, it might also be worth considering how much meat your household consumes and where that meat comes from. 

“Diet shift is also one important strategy for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE),” Dr. Keoleian says, adding that the red-meat industry, from breeding to packaging and transportation “accounts for half of our diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, so shifting to plant-based proteins, such as beans, can lower your carbon footprint.”

That said, be honest with yourself. If never having a burger for the rest of your life makes you want to cry, find ways to incorporate meat into your life that will have less of an environmental impact. For example, purchasing the beef from your local farmer’s market can be a more mindful option, as can adopting a “Meatless Mondays”-style rule. In fact, cutting out meat just one day a week cuts your consumption by almost 15 percent. When it comes down to it, lasting change is all about finding realistic, manageable solutions you can stick with in the long-term, not just something you do for one week and then give up.

Using Single-Serve Coffee Pods 

Sometimes, you need a caffeine fix, and you need it ASAP. This is what makes single-serve coffee machines so appealing. However, the plastic pods containing the coffee aren’t terribly eco-conscious. “K-cups are convenient but coffee aficionados prefer to grind and brew with a filter or use a French press,” Dr. Keoleian says. 

While there are certainly tradeoffs with things like energy and time spent, he noted that knowing where your coffee comes from may ultimately be more important than which machine you use. “Consider sustainably-sourced and free trade coffee,” Dr. Keoleian recommended. 

Lighting Candles 

Winter is coming, and candles can definitely amp up the cozy vibes. But wait — if you’re intentionally lighting something on fire, are you contributing to emissions? According to Dr. Keoleian, you have relatively little to worry about here. 

“Lighting candles has a very small impact from a resource perspective,” he says, adding that the emotional payoff is worth considering here, too. “This is an example of where the aesthetic benefits and joy of blowing them out on a birthday cake should not be curtailed,” he says. 

If you are worried about the soot that some candles can give off, switching to beeswax-based candles can help cut down on that black residue. Scented candles can “trigger allergies or asthma,” Dr. Keoleian adds, so take that into consideration before you stock up on your winter-ready finds.

Drinking out of Plastic Straws

Given initiatives at restaurants and in some major cities ban plastic straws at their stores, you might be wondering how bad plastic straws really are. But as it turns out, the fear-mongering around straws is something of a, well, straw-man, and is often ableist against disabled people.

“More than three-quarters of the plastics discarded each year in the U.S. went to landfill, and less than 8 percent was recycled. Straws make up a very tiny fraction of plastic waste,” says Dr. Keoleian.

He notes that it’s “best to go strawless when possible,” or to switch to a reusable straw if the option is available to you — but this advice might not apply to you. If you require plastic straws for a given disability or need, still feel absolutely comfortable using them. 

This post originally appeared on Apartment Therapy. See it there: Here’s What a Climate Scientist Really Thinks of Your Everyday Home Habits