Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices
As the world’s forests disappear and our air becomes increasingly polluted, many concerned consumers wonder what they can do to help. Countless articles, books and experts have advised that the ‘environmental crisis’ can be resolved by a large number of small actions, like printing on both sides of computer paper and carrying travel mugs rather than using disposable Styrofoam ™ cups. But will the cumulative effects of all of these small actions be enough to stop global warming, reverse habitat loss and clean up the world’s fresh water sources?
Efforts like recycling and cutting down on household disposable goods are important and useful practices, but it’s also important not to lose sight of the big picture. While it is good to try to reduce consumption however we can, a few consumer activities are more ecologically harmful than the rest.
According to “The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices - Practical advcie from the Union of Concerned Scientists” by Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D. (Three Rivers Press, 1999), the most efficient way of reducing our impact on the environment is to concentrate our efforts on the seven most harmful sectors of consumer activity:
- Cars and light trucks
- Meat and poultry
- Fruits, vegetables and grains
- Home heating, hot water, and air conditioning
- Household appliances and lighting
- Home construction
- Household water and sewage
Driving cars and light trucks is the single most ecologically harmful consumer activity. It contributes to global warming and air pollution (by emissions), to water pollution (by car manufacturing, oil and gasoline production, and highway runoff), and to habitat loss and habitat fragmentation (by road construction).
Consumers can reduce these effects by choosing homes in locations that reduce the need to drive, making efforts not to buy a second car, buying fuel-efficient, low-polluting cars if you need a vehicle, and choosing to walk, bike or use public transit whenever possible.
The production of meat and poultry uses a great deal of fresh water, and it contributes to common water pollution because of the vast amounts of waste dumped into the environment. Although it is not feasible for most people to eliminate meat altogether, eating one or two more vegetarian meals a week would be helpful.
Although organic produce is often more expensive to buy than traditionally-grown fruits, vegetables and grains, it is more environmentally friendly. Conventional agriculture leans heavily on pesticides and fertilizers, which contribute to both common and toxic water pollution, and its practices tend to create accelerated soil degradation. Organic or sustainable agriculture uses no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and often employs cover crops and less tilling, so that soil degradation is slower or absent.
Home heating, hot water and air conditioning are the household operations that use the largest amounts of electricity. Buying a smaller home will reduce heating and air conditioning costs, and solar energy and geothermal heat systems are renewable ways to power and heat a home. Even when it isn’t possible to obtain these, installing water-efficient showerheads will reduce hot water costs, and opening windows instead of turning on the air conditioning will cut enormous amounts of electricity.
Household appliances and lighting can also use shocking amounts of electricity, and while it is possible to reduce our usage of them somewhat, it is most useful to buy energy-efficient appliances and lighting to begin with. Standard fluorescent lights use only a fraction of the energy used by incandescent bulbs. Most appliance dealers stock energy-efficient refrigerators, washer/dryers, etc. The provincial government rebates the PST on certain energy efficient appliances.
Environmentally friendly home construction is most easily achieved by simply building smaller houses. Smaller houses require less energy and materials to build and less energy to maintain. With a little effort, effective space management eliminates the need for large houses.
Unfortunately, household sewage is a rather difficult problem to solve. Short of installing their own septic tanks or composting toilet systems, there is little that individuals can do to minimize the water pollution that results from municipal sewage disposal. Households can, however, reduce their water use by installing water-efficient appliances and planting gardens and yards that need little to no watering.
Although it is not possible to completely eliminate environmental harm, keeping in mind the seven most harmful sectors of consumer activity is the most effective way to minimize our impact on the natural world. So don’t sweat the small stuff, but do concentrate your efforts where they will make the most difference.
(Source: Sept. 2004 WasteWatch)
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