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Get in the Habit

Shrink your carbon footprint


Rees, a community planner at the University of British Columbia, had found the perfect metaphor for a concept he had been working on called "the regional capsule". After his small epiphany, he immediately renamed that concept "the ecological footprint". This now ubiquitous phrase has challenged the way we think about our relationship to the environment.

In 1992 William Rees received a new desktop computer—one that sat upright instead of flat. Pleased with the space-saving design, he remarked that he liked the “smaller footprint” on his desk.

It was a defining moment.

Rees, a community planner at the University of British Columbia, had found the perfect metaphor for a concept he had been working on called “the regional capsule.” After his small epiphany, he immediately renamed that concept “the ecological footprint.” This now ubiquitous phrase has challenged the way we think about our relationship to the environment.

Over 15 years later, ecological concepts have become staples in our everyday coffee conversation. However, unless carbon-cutting habits become ingrained in our lives, all we are doing is bandying topical buzzwords around. One-time green gestures such as changing light bulbs are good but aren’t going to turn us into eco-heroes. It takes dogged perseverance to radically change our lifestyles. After all, replacing a light bulb takes two minutes, but what are we going to do with the rest of our lives?

What is a carbon footprint?

If you still scratch your head whenever your green friends huddle around the tofu dip to compare their carbon footprints, read on.

The term carbon footprint is derived from Rees’s ecological footprint concept but is specifically focused on global warming. Basically, a carbon footprint represents the overall amount of CO2 an individual personally contributes to the atmosphere. A carbon footprint is made up of both a primary and secondary footprint.

Our primary footprint includes how much electricity, gas, oil, and coal we use for our energy and transportation needs. A lifestyle that includes frequent air travel, for example, would dramatically increase a footprint’s size.

Our secondary footprint is determined by the products and services we use. The manufacture, transport, and eventual breakdown of a product impact the environment throughout the product’s life cycle.

How is a carbon footprint measured?

A carbon footprint is usually measured in tons of carbon per year. There are many online calculators that will determine the size of our carbon footprint. Here are a few to try:

No measurement will be 100 percent accurate. Our carbon footprint highlights areas in our life we can change. We can also compare ourselves to the Canadian average, which is currently about 12 tons per person.

Here are 10 carbon-cutting habits we can adopt to reduce our footprints

1. Wash clothes less.
Wash clothes in cold water and use energy-efficient appliances to save energy. However, an even better way is to not wash clothes at all.

Sound gross? Well, how dirty are your clothes really? Unless you frolic in mud all day, they’re probably fine. Use your nose to test or scan for obvious stains. You don’t want to display yesterday’s mustard stains on your work pants, but if they look clean then they’re good to go.

Tip: 90% of the energy used in washing clothes goes to heat the water,

2. Use your local library.
You may love to read, but you don’t have to buy every bestseller on your list. Visit your local library where you’ll find one of the richest resources of knowledge in your community. If it doesn’t have the book you want, your library can always request it from another branch. You can also indulge in the latest newspapers and magazines without costly subscriptions.

3. Don’t leave water running.
Use an energy-efficient dishwasher (if you have a full load) instead of washing dishes by hand to save even more.

Water conservation isn’t the only issue. Water companies use energy to treat our water before and after use, as well as to pump it to and from our homes. Less water equals less energy being used.

Tip: 95 litres of water can be saved each month by simply turning off the tap while brushing.

4. Turn down your thermostat.
Always turn down your thermostat when you leave home. If you have a programmable thermostat, set it to turn down for a period every day.

It is a common misperception that the energy required to reheat a building cancels out the energy savings. The longer we leave our living space at a lower temperature, the more energy we save. It’s also a great excuse to break out that comfy sweater grandma knitted for you.

Tip: Save $600 by turning down the heat 5 degrees.

5. Trip-link your errands.
Let’s be honest: riding a bicycle to work sounds like a great idea, but often it isn’t practical—especially when you have to drop off the kids at hockey practice and get groceries before going to yoga.

Surprisingly, a quick trip to the store is more polluting than a longer trip with more stops. This is because a cold car (one that’s been sitting for over an hour) is five times more polluting than a warm car. If you plan your route and combine several trips, you can avoid cold starts and cut back on carbon emissions.

Tip: 30 seconds is all a modern car needs to warm up.

6. Take advantage of technology.
We live in a wired world. Fast Internet speeds and advances in video conferencing technology allow a virtual face-to-face that’s as good as the real thing.

Flying to a business meeting across the world is not only unnecessary, but it will also create a giant carbon footprint you won’t easily diminish. Telecommuting or working from home is another option if your boss trusts you won’t be looking at Facebook all day.

Tip: Save $5,000 anually through telecommuting programs.

7. Don’t recycle: freecycle.
Can’t sell your couch on Craigslist? That’s no reason to give it a new home at the dump. Join the worldwide gifting movement known as the freecycle network. Find a freecycle community in your area by going to Community members give stuff away for free—no strings attached.

Tip: More than 6 million people are actively freecycling!

8. Reduce your packaging.
All the plastic and cardboard waste we generate either ends up in landfills or takes energy to recycle. When you’re out shopping, keep these tips in mind:

  • Buy concentrated—everything from fabric softeners to soups to juice.
  • Buy loose—don’t buy packaged fruit, nuts, or vegetables.
  • Buy refills—purchase packs of items such as coffee and liquid soap.
  • Buy in bulk—you’ll save money too.
  • Buy smart—why buy a can of shaving gel when a bar of soap will do the same thing?

9. Face your demons.
Everyone has their Achilles heel, whether it is a wardrobe full of shoes or the latest gadgets. But do you really need hundreds of shoes when a few stylish pairs will cover all the seasons? Must you have the latest iPod when your current one works perfectly well?

If you’re mindful of your material weaknesses, you’ll be less likely to succumb next time you’re in the mall. The less complicated and cluttered your life is, the smaller your carbon footprint is likely to be.

10. Don’t use disposable items.

  • There’s no such thing as a disposable item that doesn’t create waste. The best policy is to just say no to everything from disposable cameras to disposable razors.
  • Bring a coffee mug to work instead of using paper cups.
  • Bring your own plates and cutlery to potlucks instead of paper and plastic ones.
  • Use cloth napkins instead of paper napkins.


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Raise a glass and say cheers to not-so-hard drinks

Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD