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Reduce your carbon footprint for Thanksgiving and beyond
Are you worried about your carbon footprint this holiday season? There's a limit to how much the responsibility for climate change individuals can take when industry is the true locus of the damage, and governmental regulation is necessary to reign it in. Still, with all the travel and the piles of food piled on top of other piles of food, it's easy to see why some people are taking note of the waste and pollution that results from these annual occasions. Does that mean we should give up these rare chances to celebrate and share with far-flung relatives?
Most of us aren't interested in that option, so how do we balance all the positivity of the holidays against the shocking environmental impact they bring? There's a number of methods you can add to your holiday traditions to help minimize your carbon footprint. Hopefully some of these options will fit into your holiday plans and reduce any stress about your carbon footprint.
Travel Less or Travel Better
Whether you're celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, or Hanukkah, travel is likely the biggest factor contributing to your carbon footprint, but there are a lot of ways you can minimize your impact. Obviously the best way to cut down is to stay local for some or all of the holidays. Many young people prefer to celebrate "Friendsgiving" in their transplant cities and set aside time for video calls with family, rather than trekking back to their hometowns. And if you just don't like your family, pointing to environmental concerns is a perfectly legitimate excuse.
If that's not an option for you—or if you really love your family for whatever reason—choosing buses and trains over cars and planes is always a plus, and selecting a location that is convenient to the greatest number of attendees can make a huge difference. And if you're thinking of travelling to New York City for the Christmas tree lighting or the New Year's Eve ball drop, don't. They're awful.
Winter heating is hugely wasteful. Any time you see icicles hanging off the side of a house or building, that's a clear sign of heat seeping out into the world. Insulation can go a long way to cutting down on both waste and costs, and signing up with an alternative energy provider like Green Mountain Energy can do a lot to minimize your impact, but there are other strategies that can help you do more while getting you into the holiday spirit, all of which can be summed up with two beautiful words: Get cozy.
Bundle up in your warmest sweater and a pair of thick socks. Share a blanket and some cocoa on the couch with your loved ones. Keep each other warm in one cozy room, rather than heating the whole house. A space heater can be a great way to cut down on your emissions and encourage your whole family to get a little closer.
Get Creative with Your Gifts
Green and eco-friendly gifts are a nice idea and can be really great if they're taking the place of a more wasteful purchase, but there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and the waste that goes into the manufacture, shipping, and packaging of green-branded goods generally outweighs their benefits.
The greenest option is probably the one you haven't gotten away with since you were ten. A book of coupons for chores and favors doesn't cost you or the environment anything. But if you lack the courage to try pulling off a scam like that, there are some pricier experience-gifts that are a lot more eco-friendly—and a lot more memorable—than an solar-powered phone charger or a pair of pants made from bamboo. A gift card to a farm-to-table restaurant, a voucher for a massage, or just a donation to the Human Fund (or, you know, a real charity) are all great options that don't require wasteful wrapping. Alternatively, if you can make a gift yourself, you'll be a real hero.
Cut Down on Your Meat and Dairy
Okay, this is a big one. After travel, the food that we eat—and the food we throw away—are responsible for the largest portion of our carbon output. Meat is generally the biggest contributor, but red meat is particularly bad. So if you usually have a ham or a roast beside your turkey, cutting that out is a good move. And if you can cut out the turkey itself—or even just choose a smaller turkey—that's even better.
There are obviously other factors to consider, like the distance your food has to travel, and the amount of water that goes into its production, but you may not want to get your PhD before your next meal, in which case, cutting out meat is a simple and effective way to drastically reduce your carbon footprint. Meatless Mondays are an easy step that more people are taking these days, but if you're really concerned about your impact this holiday season, you can offset the added emissions from travel by cutting out meat for a few days, a week, or a month at a time.
If we made that kind of practice a part of our holiday traditions—cutting out meats for some portion of December—we could go a long way toward pairing back holiday emissions. With recent advances in meat alternatives from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, you might find the change easier than you would think. And if enough of us pick up the habit, the agricultural industry will have no choice but to shift toward more sustainable foods.
Better meat options exist.
Every year, humans eat 70 billion animals around the globe, and 9 billion of them are killed in the U.S.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, the most significant way to lower your impact on the environment is cut out meat and dairy from your diet: "The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions."
This presents environmentally-conscious animal eaters with a stark choice: Give up eating animals, or give up on your beliefs. But there is a middle ground, which involves choosing options that have, if not a zero-impact, perhaps a lower one. Here is a list of choices, going from best to worst.
For those who aren't ready to give up meat but want a more environmentally-friendly option, switching to chicken is one of the best choices. Slate explains that chickens produce a much lower amount of carbon dioxide than cows. Cows generate about four times more greenhouse gases than chickens. In addition, chickens only create two to four pounds of manure per pound of weight, which is less than the 35 to 65 pounds cows make per pound of beef, according to Slate. Experts recommend looking for free-range chickens raised without antibiotics.
Pork is a better environmental choice than beef because pigs produce about 50% less carbon dioxide than cows, according to the BBC. Pigs are also omnivores (they'll eat anything), and this is actually better for the environment than cows that require grass or grains. A hog can help reduce food waste by consuming vegetable scraps and other food that would have been discarded. Another positive is that pigs need less feed overall compared to cows.
Technically, mussels aren't meat because they're categorized as seafood. However, they're an option for people who don't want to go vegan and still want a good source of protein. The BBC explains that mussels actually capture carbon dioxide, so they're an environmentally-responsible alternative and a better choice than farm-raised fish. They don't need to eat other food sources to grow because they filter nutrients from the water, so their impact is lower. Moreover, they don't contribute to pollution.
Shoppers who are worried about the environmental impact of their meat purchases should consider the following tips. First, try to reduce the number of days per week that you eat meat. You can switch to meatless Mondays or make the weekends meat-free. Another option is to use meat alternatives like tofu more often when you cook. Look for free-range and organic meat products. Some other label names to watch for include cage-free or barn-roaming.
There are meat options that are more environmentally-friendly. Consider making chicken, pork, and mussels more frequently for dinner.
Is there truth behind going green and can it really help save the planet?
So many campaigns want you to recycle, avoid creating trash and reduce your carbon footprint. There are many, many tips online to living a green lifestyle. And many people are attempting to reduce waste and conserve energy — but is this enough to really make an impact?
Sure, if every single person (or at least most people) in developed societies lived an eco-friendly lifestyle, there would be a significant impact on the environment. But right now, about 75 percent of Americans don't do more than turn off the lights and recycle even though about 79% consider themselves environmentally conscious.
...fossil fuels are intertwined with pretty much everything we do.
If you live in an urban area, it might be a little easier to make more green lifestyle choices. Your city probably has the ability to recycle more than in other areas. You have access to public transportation and many more options when it comes time to shop or get groceries. These options just aren't as widely available in suburban and rural areas. Some municipalities don't even have any kind of recycling plant. Everything (including plastic, paper, bottles and cans) goes to the dump. Beside the fact that going through the effort to change your lifestyle to become more green takes time and money that some just can't spare.
But let's take a step back. Even if a lot of people do everything right and live an incredibly environmentally conscious lifestyle, nothing will really change. Why? Because fossil fuels are intertwined with pretty much everything we do. The solution to global warming isn't rooted in going paperless (using paper is more eco-friendly than smartphones anyway). The solution is in fundamentally changing the very fabric of our economy. That's not something individuals can do on their own.
Almost everything you buy and consume has to be transported to the store (for you to purchase. Within the country, this is done with trucks. Overseas, it's usually done with ships or planes. Every single one of those vehicles burns some type of fossil fuels to get going. You probably burn them when you're going to the store too. (You can't really get around this by ordering online either.)
In the end, using an electric car can actually put more carbon in the atmosphere than your average gas-powered car.
Electric cars are often seen as a solution for this. It's better to use electricity than gas, right? Definitely — if most of the power didn't come from burning fossil fuels. America's power grid is powered by about 40 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas, 20 percent nuclear power and about 10 percent renewable sources (mostly hydroelectricity). If you own or are considering an electric car, you would most likely still be burning fossil fuels. And that's not even taking into account everything that goes into making a new car. Just like a regular car electric vehicles require precious metals and minerals to be manufactured. What's more is all of the materials and parts are transported using fossil fuels as well as the final product itself. In the end, using an electric car can actually put more carbon in the atmosphere than your average gas-powered car.
Just about every facet of our modern economy depends on burning fossil fuels. That isn't something one person can change. To really live a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle, we need to change everything about how we live. That just isn't an easy process.
Of course, it still helps to reduce, reuse and recycle — but that only makes a relatively small impact compared to the overall economy. But it isn't all doom and gloom. The Paris Agreement was an encouraging step toward reducing carbon emissions around the world. If you really care about reducing your carbon footprint, the best solution is to organize and lobby companies and the government to change procedures and regulations. Ultimately, individuals independently choosing to live a greener lifestyle only makes a small impact in reducing our global carbon footprint.