Ten ways you didn’t know you were harming the planet

With world leaders – well, some of them – gearing up to attend the crucial COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow from Sunday, questions about what we can do to reduce our impact on the environment have an even greater sense of urgency.

While the scale of change needed requires co-ordinated efforts by governments and businesses, we have a role to play as individuals, too.

As the environmental activist Greta Thunberg puts it: ‘No one is too small to make a difference.’ A great place to start is within the home.

You are probably already recycling. You’ve maybe made the swap from handwash to soap, and perhaps you never buy single-use plastic. This is all great news.

But you may be shocked at the impact your daily life can have on your carbon footprint. As we discover, quite frequently small changes can make a big difference.

Cut flowers

As with fresh produce, year-round access to flowers usually involves carbon-intensive practices such as airfreighting or artificial heat.

A single rose grown in a Dutch greenhouse or flown in from Kenya results in 2.4kg CO2e, with a bouquet comprising roses, lilies and gypsophila from the two countries racking up an enormous 32.3kg CO2e.

Make a difference

  • Choose seasonal British flowers over imported varieties.
  • Consider longer-lasting options such as plants.
  • Dispose of them with garden waste.

How you cook pasta

Cooking methods contribute to carbon emissions. Using an electric kettle to heat a litre of water to boil pasta, rice or anything else creates 40g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), which includes carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

A gas kettle on a low heat creates 50g CO2e but a saucepan without a lid on a gas hob creates 115g CO2e.

Make a difference

  • Boil the water in a kettle first. Always use the lid during cooking.
  • Match the size of the saucepan base with the size of the hob ring to avoid wasting heat.

Tumble drying clothes

When it comes to laundry, it’s the drying method that does most damage. A load washed at 30 or 40 degrees and then line-dried generates 330g and 540g CO2e respectively. Wash at 40 degrees then tumble dry and it’s 2kg of CO2e.

Make a difference

  • Treat the dryer as emergency back-up rather than the automatic option.
  • Get an additional clothes airer.
  • At the very least, stop putting wet items straight into the dryer – let them dry naturally for a while first.

Loo paper

The carbon emissions from your bathroom come not only from how you wash, but also from what you use to wipe. A toilet roll made from virgin paper is responsible for 730g of CO2e; from recycled paper, it’s 450g CO2e.

Make a difference

  • Select loo rolls made from materials with a lower impact, such as recycled paper or bamboo.
  • Fold, don’t scrunch – you’ll use less.
  • Recycle plastic outer loo roll packaging with carrier bags.

Washing the dishes by hand

Whether you have had a takeaway or cooked, doing the washing-up by hand leads to carbon emissions ranging from 360g CO2e to 3kg CO2e.

A 50-degree cycle in a dishwasher, on the other hand, is quicker, more hygienic and comes in at 460g CO2e.

Make a difference

  • If you wash-up by hand, always use a plug or washing-up bowl rather than leaving the tap running.
  • Run a full dishwasher instead if you can.
  • Make the eco-setting your default dishwasher choice.

Your food shop

It’s probably no shock that some foods require far more environmental resources to manufacture than others, but the cumulative impact of what we eat is surprisingly high.

The amount of CO2e created by the typical UK diet, including meat and items transported by air, amounts to 88kg per week. In comparison, a vegan diet with no airfreighted produce or waste averages 17kg CO2e per week.

Make a difference

  • Eat plant-based at breakfast and lunch.
  • Waste less by utilising your freezer (see lovefoodhatewaste.com for tips).
  • Get familiar with when British fruit and veg is in season – find a handy guide at lovebritishfood.co.uk.

Long showers

A shower uses less water than a bath, but the length of time you spend in the shower, and how the water is heated, affect its carbon footprint.

Although three minutes under an aerated showerhead powered by a gas boiler totals 55g CO2e, five minutes in a standard 8kw electric shower is 250g CO2e. Make it 15 minutes in an 11kw power shower and it’s the same as a bath (1kg CO2e).

Make a difference

  • Keep your shower short – the length of a classic pop song is ideal.
  • Experiment with turning the temperature down a notch.
  • Enquire with your water supplier about getting a water-efficient showerhead.

Takeaway food

Alas, our beloved takeaways have a carbon footprint. While a small meal for four might only equate to 4kg CO2e, a feast involving meat or prawn dishes is more like 24kg – plus 13g CO2e per aluminium tray (130g if it goes into landfill) and 24g per plastic container.

Make a difference

  • Pick from the vegetarian section of the menu.
  • Don’t over-order – or at least eat leftovers the next day.
  • Rinse, reuse and ultimately recycle the packaging.

Fresh tomatoes

Growing produce under artificial heat means far higher carbon emissions. One kilo of large tomatoes, grown locally and in season?

That’s 1.3kg CO2e. One kilo of baby plum tomatoes from the UK in summer or Spain in winter? 4.9kg CO2e. One kilo of organic UK vine cherry tomatoes grown in a heated greenhouse? 28.2kg CO2e.

Make a difference

  • As ever, look for seasonal British produce and avoid fresh produce out of season.
  • Go for tinned, canned and frozen versions during off-seasons instead.

Post

Yes, this also has a carbon footprint: 280g CO2e for 10g letter on recycled paper that gets recycled, increasing to 350g CO2e for a 25g letter on virgin paper that ends up in landfill. A small catalogue or magazine is more like 2kg CO2e.

Make a difference

  • Check your local authority recycling guidelines online regarding envelopes with windows.
  • Shred then recycle anything containing personal details – or get a professional company to do it for you.
  • Unsubscribe from unwanted post (to find out how, search ‘junk mail’ on citizensadvice.org.uk).

All figures for carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions are taken from How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint Of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee (Profile Books, 2020 edition).

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