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How to fight climate change at home

17 actionable tips to reduce your carbon footprint while social distancing at home

Illustration with household objects like a lightbulb and oven.

While a global pandemic may have put life (as we know it) on hold—and cleared the air temporarily amid widespread lockdowns—it hasn’t exactly stopped the looming climate crisis.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day today in a social-distanced world, it’s still possible to make a difference in the fight against climate change with individual actions that start at home.

From rethinking your laundry routine to ditching the plastic trash bag, these 17 ideas not only provide a roadmap for a healthier and more sustainable household, but can save you some money, too. Let’s get to it.

1. Grow your own food. In addition to helping you eat more fruits and veggies, growing your own food cuts down on transportation energy costs and avoids the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in conventionally grown crops. You can start a traditional vegetable garden outside, opt for an indoor garden kit, or even start small by regrowing vegetable scraps—like scallions, lettuce, celery, or bok choy—in jars of water.

2. Swap out paper towels for washable cloths. Need an easy household project during quarantine? Repurpose old clothes, tablecloths, or scraps of fabric to use as napkins, kitchen towels, and rags.

3. Design your workspace around natural light. Now that many people are working from home full-time due to the pandemic, reconsider your workspace: Do you need to have a light on all day? Is there an alternative spot that might get better natural light? Turning a few lights off helps you reduce electricity usage and extend the life of your lightbulbs.

4. Clean or replace your HVAC filters. A dirty filter on your air conditioner or heater makes the system work harder and waste energy. Clean or replace your filters every three months and be sure to use a high-quality filter—look for a minimum efficiency reporting value, or MERV rating, of no lower than 8.

5. Try composting. Research shows that as much as half of the waste in your trash bin can be composted, so consider composting at home. There are a lot of different ways to get started on your own, or see what your city offers as far as curbside composting services. Some municipalities without a designated compost program allow residents to throw fruit and vegetable scraps in the green bin for yard cuttings.

6. Unplug electronic devices when they aren’t in use. Just because a device or appliance appears to be off doesn’t mean it’s not drawing power. About a quarter of all residential energy consumption comes from devices on idle power mode, which means “sleep mode” costing upward of $19 billion in electricity bills. Things like your cable box, laptop, and even your speakers may be using almost as much power when they are off but plugged in as when they are on.

7. Rethink your laundry. Washing and drying clothes uses a ton of energy, so rethink your routine. Instead of using warm water, wash your clothes in cold. Approximately 75 percent of the total energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions produced by a single load of laundry comes from warming the water itself. That’s unnecessary, especially because studies have shown that washing in cold water is just as effective as in warm water. Also consider ditching your dryer. The dryer is one of the top three energy-hungry appliances in your house, and air-drying your clothes can reduce the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds a year.

8. Repurpose old furniture. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of furniture and furnishings taken to a landfill rose from 7.6 million tons in 2005 to 9.69 million tons in 2015, and the rate of increase is accelerating. Instead of buying new furniture, consider using recycled materials and repainting or reupholstering old furniture to create something new.

A photo collage showing a disassembled dresser on the left and the assembled dresser on the right.
Curbed Editor-in-Chief Kelsey Keith used her DIY skills to refresh an Ikea dresser into a beautiful statement piece.
Kelsey Keith

9. Switch your lightbulbs to LEDs. Quality LED lightbulbs are more durable, last 25 times longer, and use up to 85 percent less energy than other bulbs. Here are a few of the best-rated LED bulbs that provide high-quality light.

10. Audit your home’s energy. You can learn a lot from a simple home energy audit, like how much energy your home consumes and how to make it more efficient. Audits can significantly reduce a home’s carbon footprint and most assessments help homeowners save between 5 to 30 percent on their energy bills.

11. Ditch the plastic trash bag. Plastic trash bags take 10 to 20 years to decompose and can wreak havoc on natural ecosystems. Forego the bag and instead periodically wash and rinse your household containers.

12. Ask your utility company about buying clean electricity. How much of your electricity comes from renewable sources? Find out by asking your utility company. Many utility companies now offer “green pricing” programs that allow customers to pay a small premium in exchange for electricity generated from clean, renewable energy sources.

13. Obsess over your water usage. Want to help cities save energy and become more resilient in the face of storms, droughts, and natural disasters? Pay attention to your water management. Add a rain barrel or downspout planter box to help capture and purify water; this puts less strain on municipal systems and helps to replenish underground aquifers. And consider a smart monitor like Flo by Moen, which can detect leaks and allow you to remotely shut off the water to your house from your smartphone.

Scallion bulbs in a two glass jars on a round green tray.
Scallions are editor Jenny Xie’s quarantine houseplant of choice. Learn how to grow them.
Jenny Xie

14. Use a programmable thermostat. Even when we’re home all the time, we don’t need to keep the temperature at a constant 70 degrees. Invest in an automatic thermostat—some cost as little as $30—or smart thermostat; adjusting your temperatures to run 2 degrees cooler in the winter and 2 degrees warmer in the summer can result in dramatic energy savings.

15. Downsize your fridge. Not only does that SUV-sized refrigerator take up valuable kitchen space, it also forces you to waste more food. Find out how much you’d save in energy costs by purchasing a more efficient model, or opt for a smaller version that keeps the planet cooler too.

16. Shrink your lawn. That “little” patch of green in front of your home is the U.S.’s most widely grown crop—there are 42 million acres of grass nationwide, more than the total acreage of corn. Lawns require extra water, gas-powered equipment, and fertilizer that pollutes waterways—and homeowners pollute much more than professional landscapers. Less grass equals less gas.

17. Calculate your household’s carbon footprint. Knowledge is power, and the first step to reducing your carbon emissions is to understand how much you’re producing in the first place. Use the University of California at Berkeley’s CoolClimate calculator to see how your home measures up—you’ll be surprised at how much your transportation choices matter.

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