26 ways to live lighter on the planet, starting now

Human impact on our world is something we can all reduce. To mark Earth Day – and the launch of National Geographic's new initiative Planet Possible – a look at sustainability ideas that begin with the most important changemakers of all: us.

Published 21 Apr 2021, 08:20 BST, Updated 29 Oct 2021, 13:48 BST
Being more mindful of our consumer habits – from purchasing to water use, food sources and transportation ...

Being more mindful of our consumer habits – from purchasing to water use, food sources and transportation – we can all make a difference.  

Photograph by Unsplash

SUSTAINABILITY is a big word. But when it comes to things we all do, if we all did a little, it would add up to a lot. What we consume in our own home can have a direct impact on the biggest and most vital ecosystems in the world – and all it would take to turn the tide on the devastating loss of species and biodiversity is for us to take action.

This Earth Day, National Geographic is launching Planet Possible, a new initiative to empower us all to live a lighter life on our planet. It's a critical year for it. This November, the U.K. will host the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, known as COP26, in Glasgow. With a focus on climate change, sustainability and biodiversity loss, it’s a chance for world leaders, scientists and environmentalists to agree global, coordinated action. In a planet fatigued by a global pandemic, this may not seem the most pressing concern – but in fact the health of our world and the emergence of diseases such as COVID-19 are linked in more ways than many realise. (Read: to prevent pandemics, stop disrespecting nature.)

Every one of us has the power to make a positive difference through the choices we make each day: here are 26 ways to start.

Learn more about Planet Possible here.
 

1. Buy less stuff

Of all the raw materials we take from nature and turn into products, approximately two-thirds end up as waste. The health of the planet therefore depends on us all sustainably sourcing what we need and repurposing it when we’re done. The shape of a successful and sustainable future is round: a circular economy where we use resources sparingly and recycle endlessly. “Our vision of a circular economy is one in which waste and pollution are eliminated, where materials and products are kept in use, and where nature is regenerated, all by design,” says Dame Ellen MacArthur, the UK’s most successful offshore racer, and founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “Such an economy would balance society’s needs with those of our planet.” (Read: Ellen MacArthur on why our throwaway culture must end.)

2. Eat more plants 

“Raising and killing 80 billion animals each year for food takes a tremendous toll on our planet, mostly due to the land it requires to raise and grow their feed, whether it be soy, corn, or grass,” says filmmaker Kip Andersen, who produced the environmental documentaries Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and Seaspiracy. According to Andersen, “it is the leading cause of habitat destruction, water consumption and pollution, deforestation, and wildlife extinction. It replaces biodiverse ecosystems with monocultures (soy, corn or grass) and monospecies (cows, pigs or chickens).” The global meat alternatives market is anticipated to be worth over £5 billion by 2025, and plant-based products are winning over the most die-hard meat fans for whom personal and animal wellbeing have been concerns. Coupled with the high environmental cost of production, this makes reducing your meat and dairy consumption one of the most effective ways to reduce your footprint – as well as potentially improving your health.  

“Only around 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled, with the rest ending up in landfill, rivers or the sea.”

3. Power down

Policies to encourage investment in low-carbon power generation and emerging technologies saw CO2 emissions in the UK power sector fall by 67% between 2008 and 2019, and costs in offshore wind fall from over £150/MWh to around £40/MWh, but around 22% of the UK’s carbon emissions still come from our homes. Consider switching to a green power company like Green Energy, Octopus, Ecotricity or the highly rated Bulb, which offers instant quotes, handles the changeover with your previous supplier, reduces your monthly bills and helps you to cut your CO2 emissions by an average of 3.2 tonnes every year. Advice from the Energy Saving Trust and installing a smart energy system can also help you to manage and track your energy usage and reduce carbon emissions.

4. Picnic without plastic

We produce 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year: almost the weight of the entire human population. COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining have made picnics the go-to way to get together, but they’re often not the greenest way to graze – as plastic-strewn beaches and parks have sadly shown. In response, marine conservation organisation Ocean Generation aims to tackle this plastic waste tsunami with some easy-to-follow tips in its Picnic Without Plastic Challenge.

Only around 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled, with the rest ending up in landfill, rivers or the sea. “Each time plastic goes through the system it is down-cycled and loses quality, until eventually it can’t be recycled and is burnt or buried,” says Ocean Generation’s founder, Jo Ruxton. “Sadly, we cannot recycle our way out of this environmental crisis.” So always take a reusable coffee cup, water bottle and cutlery on your outdoor jaunts.

Social distancing measures make picnics the ideal way to see friends – and using reusable or biodegradable utensils, plates, drinks holder and baskets can make it ideal for the planet, too.  

Photograph by Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

5. Clean green

A clean home has never been more pressing, but you don’t need to whip up a toxic tornado to maintain one. Supermarket shelves are still laden with plastic-packaged cleaning products fizzing with chemicals that are potentially harmful to the health of humans and the planet. Swap corrosive bleach for baking soda or vinegar to clean toilets and drains, or switch to kinder bathroom and kitchen cleaning products from an environmentally friendly company like EcoVibe. Sustainable starter kits include refillable glass spray bottles and plastic-free concentrated cleaning sachets, with a choice of exotic scents, all delivered in biodegradable packaging. Try their all-natural coconut fibre scourers, too. For laundry, the award-winning Ecoegg offers refillable long-life Laundry Eggs, which could save up to 40 plastic bottles of detergent and conditioner each year, plus Bamboo Towels, a reusable alternative to kitchen roll.

(Read: 5 reasons to ditch your shampoo bottle for a shampoo bar.)

6. Scrutinise investments

You may be focussing on reducing your carbon footprint now, but are you unknowingly contributing to unethical, polluting businesses through the investments you’re making for your future? Your bank or pension provider could be financing anything from fossil fuels to deforestation. Find out where your money is being spent, and encourage ethical investment by supporting the Make My Money Matter campaign. The trillions of pounds in the UK pensions pot today could be working towards building a greener tomorrow.

7. Manage microfibres

It’s not just the sea of plastic you see washed up beaches around the world that’s harming the environment. During every domestic wash cycle, synthetic materials shed around 700,000 microfibres: tiny plastic particles which slip through current filtration systems and into our oceans, where they’re ingested by aquatic organisms. One study showed that 63% of North Sea shrimp contained synthetic fibres. (Watch: Plastics 101)

The Marine Conservation Society’s Stop Ocean Threads campaign is calling on washing machine manufacturers to urgently start installing filters to catch the 10 trillion fibres being released weekly into the environment in the UK. “In the meantime, using fabric softener, washing at 30 degrees, washing a full load of clothes and swapping from washing powder to liquid are all ways of reducing microfibre shedding,” says Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society. Using a Guppyfriend Washing Bag can also help by reducing synthetic fibre-shedding by an average of 86% during a wash cycle.

(Read: These five UK innovations could revolutionise our relationship with waste.)

More sustainable grooming items such as non-plastic toothbrushes and refillable cosmetic containers, and reusable carrier bags are obvious – but impactful – ways to make a direct impact on your personal waste production.

Photograph by The Humble Co (L) The Creative Exchange (R) / Unsplash

8. Groom smarter

We all love a beauty or grooming product, but once we know what works and what we like, buying a refill instead of another brand new pot or bottle could save tonnes of waste. Luckily, brands are on the case, with many joining forces with specialist recycling company TerraCycle on their Loop Waste-Free Shopping Project and other in-store recycling partnerships. Look for brands that are working to reduce the numbers of their products going to waste or proactively working on sustainable packaging; opting for cleansing bars instead of bottles, reusable razors and refillable, natural deodorants like the sweet-smelling Wild will reduce your plastic use, too. 

9. Go paperless

Paperless statements from your bank and updates from any charities you support are a good first step. If you want to go further, consider registering with the Mailing Preference Service to reduce the amount of unsolicited marketing mail you receive through the post. And a 'no unsolicited mail' sticker is easy to make and stick to your letterbox.  

10. Re-fuel

As part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Ten-Point Plan For A Green Industrial Revolution, the UK has banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030: ten years earlier than planned. With second-hand petrol and diesel cars exempt from the sales ban, the government has pledged £582 million in grants for those buying zero or ultra-low emission vehicles, and £1.3 billion for installing charging points, to encourage the transition. Making better use of communal transport systems is also key to the UK meeting its legally binding target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Cutting your home office's power usage, using cloth masks, considering your transport methods and partaking in litter picks and beach cleanups: all actions with impact. 

Photograph by Unsplash / Marine Conservation Society

11. Mask sustainably

Just when regions of the world were making progress with ditching disposables, the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an urgent need for personal protective equipment (PPE), which resulted in a seismic increase in single-use plastics. An estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used every month, along with a mountain of protective wrappers. The impact will be felt long into the future as discarded PPE reaches our oceans, but choosing a washable face mask will help. Every 2-pack purchase of the 100% GOTS-certified organic cotton reusable and sustainable face masks from marine conservation organisation, 4Ocean, supports the cleanup of one pound of garbage from rivers, seas and coastlines. 

12. Eco your office

Now that many of us are working from home, the eco-efficiency of our office is down to us. Up-cycle furniture for your work space and set up digital filing systems instead of filling your shelves with documents. Recycle and reuse paper and envelopes, and consider selecting Ecosia as your web browser: they’ll plant trees with every online search. Switch to rechargeable batteries, LED bulbs, and invest in an energy-saving smart power strip. Remember to boost your own efficiency – and happiness – with a window, natural light and plenty of plants, too.  

13. Stand up for wildlife

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the clearest signals we’ve had that our treatment of the creatures which share our planet must change. Global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline in less than half a century. With our destinies entwined, there has never been a more important time to stand up for the voiceless. Create and sign petitions, write to your M.P., loudly and peacefully protest, support justice for nature campaigns, follow wildlife advocates on social media, and encourage people you know to do the same. 

14. Start young

You’re never too new to be an eco-warrior. An estimated eight million plastic-packed disposable nappies are thrown away daily in the U.K, each one taking up to 500 years to decompose. If there’s a baby in your house, there’s likely to be a sustainable alternative to these nappies on sale, or heading your way. Biodegradable versions are now available, while old-school reusables are making a come-back, cutting significant waste and cost (look out for the stylish seaweed and wood pulp Sumo Diaper by product designer Luisa Kahlfeldt). Meanwhile, carbon-neutral company Piccolo has produced Europe’s first fully recyclable organic baby food pouch, a gigantic step forward for an industry that sells over 60-million non-recyclable pouches each year.

15. Leave fish in the sea

“Taking and killing 1.5 trillion fish from the ocean to feed humans each year is by far the leading cause of the biodiversity collapse occurring in our oceans, regardless of whether the fishing practice is commercial, "sustainable", or farm fishing,” says Seaspiracy and Cowspiracy film maker, Kip Andersen. “The ocean simply cannot thrive with this amount of pillaging.” Get your fishy fill with vegan fish alternatives, or switch to plant-based meals instead.

Shortening showers and taking a bag with which to collect rubbish on a run – 'plogging'. 

Photograph by Chandler Cruttenden, Florian Schmetz / Unsplash

16. Go plogging

Born from the Swedish words for runnig (jogga) and picking up (plocka upp) this activity is, as the name suggests, a combination of a morning run and an eco-activity – namely, picking up litter. The activity is gathering apace around the world as a way of reducing plastic waste in your local areas in addition to an extra incentive to get fit, and the social media cache of both a good deed act – and a demonstration of the problem's scale.     

17. Shorten showers

Despite being known as the ‘Blue Planet’, less than 1% of the water on Earth is fresh and accessible. With the U.K.’s population forecast to rise from around 68 million today to 77.5 million by 2050, and climate change now a very clear and present danger – England experienced its driest May on record in 2020; the U.K. its sunniest spring – the Environment Agency has warned that we could experience drastic water shortages within just 25 years. Adopting some of the water-saving tips from independent N.G.O. Waterwise will help to preserve our precious stores of H2O. The average five minute shower, for instance, uses 45 litres of water; simply halving this time, or avoiding doubling it, can have an impact not just in water saved, but fuel used to heat it.

18. Cut tech turnover

Our obsession with technology may be powering humanity forward, but the lowering cost of electronics and a throw-away culture has rendered E-waste the fastest-growing waste stream in the world: in 2019, the world produced 53.6 million metric tons of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Just over 17% was formally recycled, with the rest – containing a mixture of hazardous and valuable materials – going to landfill or being dismantled, often by workers in poor conditions. Be part of the solution by donating your unwanted tech to charities or taking it to a Designated Collection Facility (DCF) run by your local authority.

Tomato plants being nurtured for home-grown vegetables. With biodiversity in crisis, outdoor planting can also help pollinators and create micro-systems for insects to thrive. 

Photograph by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

19. Grow a green garden

Around 27 million people in the UK are active gardeners, and the nation’s gardens cover an area over a fifth the size of Wales. No matter its size, you can use your garden to help self-sustain with home-grown food. You can also transform your outdoor space into a haven for wildlife by planting native flowers that attract pollinators, ditching pesticides and creating a compost heap. The BBC Springwatch Save Our Species Pond From A Washing Up Bowl tutorial by naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham, is an easy way to attract aquatic critters, and you’ll find more ideas in his Back To Nature: How To Love Life – And Save It book, co-authored with Megan McCubbin, too. 

20. Change your travel

Covid-19 travel restrictions may have led to a near 57% reduction in CO2 emissions from flights across Europe compared with 2019 according to Eurocontrol, but as airlines return to business as usual, aviation will once more pose one of the biggest ethical dilemmas for environmentally conscious explorers. United Airlines is signing corporate partners up to its Eco-Skies Alliance to purchase sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and exploring direct air capture (D.A.C.) technology, but most airlines currently turn to carbon offsetting schemes to compensate for carbon emissions. “Carbon offset is not a solution: it is a band-aid to gain us time, so it is better to offset than not,” says Alexa Poortier, co-founder of NOW, which funds projects that align with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through its NOW Offset Carbon tool.

Taking fewer but longer trips, travelling by train, ferry or bicycle, and booking through an agent like Charitable Travel, which donates 5% of the cost of your trip to charity, or a responsible tour operator like G Adventures, which supports community projects, are other ways to lighten the footprint of your journey.

21. Shop for the planet

“As you shop, consider where in the world your food has come from. The further it has travelled, the more energy has been used for fuel, refrigeration and packaging, likely increasing fossil fuel emissions,” says Karen Edwards, author of The Planet-Friendly Kitchen: How To Shop And Cook With A Conscience. “Buy locally produced food from farmer's markets or smaller vendors, or try growing your own fruits and vegetables at home.” Chemical-free organic farming is kinder to the environment including bees, while the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation produces rare slaughter-free milk and cheese. Cut down on unnecessary packaging by visiting zero-waste shops where you can refill your own containers. “At home, reduce food waste by pre-planning your weekly meals,” advises Karen. “And swap clingfilm for biodegradable beeswax wraps.”

Tips 21-24 for lighter living needn't take a toll on your lifestyle: a sustainable attitude to fashion, exotic travel with an off-set built in, food that is locally sourced and stays on the wild side all have their perks.

Photograph by Clockwise from top left: Unsplash; Charitable Travel; the Planet Friendly Kitchen; Wild East

22. Be fashionably green

One billion items of clothing are produced globally each year, while an estimated £357 billion is lost annually due to clothing that’s barely worn and rarely recycled: every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. Based on current trends, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Living through lockdown saw many of us kick our clothing obsession, but if you’re back to buying new, avoid “fast fashion” and opt for quality, ethically produced items made from low-impact materials. Share, repair, donate, sell and recycle as many old clothes as you can, and upcycle your old or broken jewellery through the Rejewel Collective, where international makers transform your gems into sparkly new pieces.   

23. Rewild your life

Human habitation, livestock farming and agriculture have left less than 5% of Europe truly wild. The European Nature Trust (TENT) oversees rewilding projects in the U.K., Europe and Belize, replanting native trees and restoring biodiversity which is in drastic decline. You can support them by joining one of their guided conservation journeys, which offer opportunities to see brown bears, wolves and lynx. “In the long term, a landscape in recovery will sequester more carbon, prevent soil erosion and mitigate flooding by retaining water,” explains TENT founder, Paul Lister.

In the U.K., the pioneering WildEast movement is on a mission to return 250,000 hectares of East Anglian farmlands to wildlands, with sustainably built homes and rental cabins at Fritton Lake, where neighbours include red and fallow deer, water buffalo and Exmoor ponies. “Our conservation project is committed not just to the protection and restoration of wildland, but to connecting people with nature and inspiring them to become part of our vision,” says co-founder, Hugh Somerleyton. 

Gallery: images of Earth, from 1972 to today

24. Choose designs for life

The term E-waste doesn’t just cover laptops and smartphones – many of the world’s domestic goods end up languising in landfill, too. "Despite our best intentions, we are hamstrung by a trend of built-to-break gadgets and household appliances, which is contributing to an appalling amount of plastic pollution and electrical wastage,” says former Dyson engineer and co-founder of Lupe Technology, Pablo Montero. Breaking the trend, the company’s energy-efficient vacuum cleaner is made from durable recyclable plastic and every part is repairable or replaceable. Sourcing manufacturers or independent repair shops that will mend broken goods, fixing them yourself, selling or donating models you no longer need, buying vintage or reclaimed furniture and supporting sustainable, ethical brands, will help to keep goods out of landfill.

25. Mark Earth Day

Launched in 1970, Earth Day has been an annual event, unifying the world to take action against climate change and environmental destruction. To mark this year’s Earth Day, President Biden will convene a historic Leaders’ Climate Summit on April 22nd, reaffirming the United States’ commitment to a net-zero economy by 2050. Earth Day Live online events will focus on ways to restore our Earth, and National Geographic will host a virtual celebration, with a concert featuring acts such as  José GonzálezMy Morning JacketWillie NelsonYo-Yo Ma, and Ziggy Marley. (Watch a recording of this special event here.)

26. Waste not

Today, we produce and buy 70 times more than we did in the 1950s, 99% of which becomes waste within the first 12 months of purchase. Remembering the three Rs has never been more important: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

For environmentalist Sir David Attenborough, the message is simple and clear. “Stop waste. Stop waste of any kind. Stop wasting energy, stop wasting food, stop wasting plastic  and stop wasting time. This is a precious world,  and  each of us can use our actions and our voice to save our planet. It’s important that we try as if our very future depends upon it.” 

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