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The Ultimate Guide to Individual Climate Action

By: Ava H.

Although I am a firm believer that systematic change is what is needed most to mitigate climate change, this is not something that will be accomplished overnight, unfortunately. I created this guide to help inspire others to find ideas that work for them to make their lifestyle more sustainable, but by no means do I expect anyone to stress over completing everything. That is a ridiculous demand when there are 100 companies responsible for 70% of global emissions. However, when individual actions are collectively added up, they do in fact create a tremendous impact, so don't feel discouraged. All in all, I hope you find this guide to be insightful.

Effective individual action is about finding the areas that will make the most positive impact on the environment. The leading consumption related environmental problems include:

-Air Pollution

-Global Warming

-Habitat Alteration

-Water Pollution

An investigation on how environmental impacts are correlated to household purchases and activities concluded that only 7 out of 50 categories are the most responsible for the highest environmental impacts linked to consumer behavior.

From highest to lowest impact:

-Cars and light trucks

-Meat and poultry

-Fruit, vegetables, and grains

-Home heating, hot water, and air conditioning

-Household appliances and lighting

-Home construction

-Household water and sewage

Therefore, this research confirms that household consumption does have a substantial impact on the environment, meaning that there is much room for growth in individually taking climate action.

When taking individual action on the environment, it is important to prioritize the actions that will certainly make the most difference. While using a metal straw is great and will hopefully help save the turtles, this sustainable alternative is by far not enough in dramatically reducing one’s carbon footprint. Some of the actions that will create the biggest impact include:


  • Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive

  • Before purchasing an additional car, reconsider and think if it is actually essential.

  • Choose a fuel-efficient, low-polluting car. This is dependent on where you live, since the efficiency of electric and hybrid cars is based on state residency, as different states rely on fossil fuels to different degrees. Remember in your car search that cars with lower emissions means that it will cost significantly less to operate.

  • Set goals to effectively reduce your air travel. If you have to travel, try to avoid flight transfers, as take off and landing are the most polluting. It is also possible to offset carbon emissions by donating money to sustainable projects.

  • Whenever practical, walk, bike, or take public transportation.


  • Eat less meat. While research is constantly evolving on what the most sustainable diet is, experts agree that cutting down on meat, especially red meat, is a better choice for the environment. This is because animal agriculture uses a lot of feed, water, and land. Red meat is even worse because cows give off methane emissions, which is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Experts say that a vegan diet is likely to be the best for the environment, due to the low carbon footprint of growing plant based foods. Vegetarian and pescatarian diets also have many environmental benefits, but only if dairy intake is limited, as dairy has a high carbon footprint. As a pescatarian, it is also important to limit the amount of fish to be consumed, as deep net fishing could emit as much as beef. Overall, eating vegetables, fruits, grains, and beans often is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and be healthier.

  • Buy certified organic produce

  • Waste less food! Americans waste about 40 percent of the food they buy. By organizing your fridge often to check food inventory and making grocery lists ahead of time, you can effectively prevent buying too much food. Planning meals beforehand can ensure you do not cook too much. Even if there are leftovers, you can get creative with them and implement them in other recipes instead of throwing them away. Freezing foods properly can substantially extend their lifespan, allowing there to be more time to eat food before it goes bad.


  • Look for the resin code on plastic containers in order to find out if it is recyclable in your state. The resin code is a number inside a triangle. City and state websites show what resin codes are accepted there.

  • Before putting containers in the recycling bin, it is important to properly rinse them out, as a dirty container can ruin a whole batch of recyclables.

  • Recycle paper

  • Recycle paper, steel, and tin cans

  • Before throwing it away, ask if there is a way to repurpose an item to extend its longevity.

  • Donate working electronics

  • Recycle broken electronics. Check local electronics stores to see if they offer a free recycling program for these electronics.

  • Collect dry cell batteries, which can be recycled through local municipalities.

  • Recycle car batteries by contacting local car dealers or municipalities.

  • Never put non-recyclables in the recycling bin, including:

  • Garden hoses

  • Sewing needles

  • Propane tanks or cylinders

  • Aerosol cans that are not empty

  • Hazardous waste and syringes

  • Broken glass and broken light bulbs

Remember, although recycling is a great option, it is certainly not the solution to plastic pollution. In other words, don't buy plastic bottles and think it's fine just because they will get recycled, because it is likely they won't be. Originally, the US imported millions of tons of plastic to China, but China has banned the import of plastics a couple years ago. Because the US was dependent on China for so long, the US has never actually developed its own domestic recycling infrastructure, so there has never been an efficient way to handle recycling. Even worse, the US does not even have a federal recycling program.

However, some cities in the US are recycling relatively well:

San Francisco: Keeps 80% of waste out of landfills and has a set zero waste goal for 2020. Has a three bin system: blue for recyclables, green for compost, and black for landfill. Stores and delivery/takeout services charge 25 cents for checkout bags.

Los Angeles: Recycles almost 80% of its waste, striving to recycle 90% by 2025. Companies get a tax break based off of how much they recycle. Restaurants are required to compost their food waste.

Austin, TX: Aiming to divert 75% of its waste per year, and requires properties to provide recycling and composting to their tenants and employees. Additionally, large construction projects must reuse or recycle at least half of their debris.

These cities are great examples that prove that effective recycling is indeed possible. Since the federal government does a poor job at initiating recycling, it is important for cities to step up their recycling program.

Household Operations:

  • Choose a home carefully

  • Reduce the environmental costs of heating and hot water

  • Install efficient lighting and appliances

  • Install a cool roof, which is made of reflective material that can redirect light away from your house, keeping it cool.

  • Choose an electricity supplier offering renewable energy

  • Buy a laptop instead of a desktop computer, since laptops take less energy to charge and run.

  • Look for an Energy Star symbol when buying new products, as this symbol means that the product has met energy efficiency standards for the United States


  • Try to stop buying fast fashion, which are clothes that are produced quickly, cheaply, and unsustainably.

  • Look for a Fair Trade logo, which indicates that clothes were made sustainably.

  • Shop vintage, but please be mindful of contributing to the gentrification of thrifting. Only purchase items that you truly love, in order to not take away clothing from those who need it.

  • Before purchasing a clothing item, ask yourself how many times you will wear it

  • Consider the fabric, as textiles have different environmental impacts.

  • Donate old clothes

  • For clothes that are too old to be donated, repurpose them for sewing projects of cleaning rags.

  • Check out Good On You, a website that rates many clothing brands on their sustainability initiatives and impact.

It is also important to note the consumer behavior that seriously worsens national environmental problems. These high-impact activities include:

  • Powerboats

  • Pesticides and fertilizers

  • Gasoline-powered yard equipment: Tends to not have effective pollution controls, allowing them to produce high quantities of air pollution. In order to use this equipment more responsibly: tune and maintain regularly, look for cleaner running models that emit less pollutants, choose electric equipment over gasoline when possible, and consider re-landscaping to reduce lawn size.

  • Fireplaces and wood stoves

  • Recreational off-road driving

  • Hazardous cleaners and paints

  • Products made from endangered or threatened species

Remember, when adopting more sustainable habits, it is important to note that it is possible to consume much more responsibly without sacrificing the lives that humanity has grown acclimated to. Furthermore, it is essential to take a quality over quantity approach, as it is much easier and more effective to focus primarily on the specific areas that are confirmed to create the greatest benefits. Start simple with adopting sustainable practices, add on to your goals, and continue to always improve on commitments!

Choose effective choices, and if other consumers are doing so as well, then it is clear that an individual can in fact make a difference! It is in fact possible to reduce consumption and lead a happier life as a result. Humanity must continue to pursue sustainable endeavors that involve:

  • Improving technology and efficiency of manufacturing

  • Develop a sustainable manufacturing system

Society’s views of economic growth need to be revitalized, because growth is not aligned with ecological and social progress.

We need to base our decision on long-term thinking, especially since politicians tend to act on a short term basis, only looking to see what certain decisions/actions will do to benefit them and make them win re-election. This concept needs to be kept in mind because dealing with environmental issues means paying a small short-term cost, but for a larger long-term benefit. This is the nature of environmental problems, which is why many policymakers do not feel pressured to address these issues. Because of this, citizens must rise up and consistently put pressure on policymakers to act for the long-term good. After all, what side of history do they want to be on? In order to influence environmental policy, citizens must become informed on issues, make your voice heard in public hearings, make your views known to elected representatives (even kids can do this, since they can easily emotionally appeal to adults), contribute money and time to candidates for office, vote, and form or join an environmental organization.

This short-term thinking strategy is also applicable to businesses, as many are happy to make a short-term profit and move on. However, if a business wants to remain in a community for a long time, long-term plans to help sustain environmental quality is crucial in order to meet their desires. Citizens must patronize businesses that are good for the community, in order to pressure other businesses to level up to the competition.

Voting with your dollar is an effective way to show your voice in the marketplace as a consumer to achieve further environmental initiatives within companies. After all, if consumers collectively start to only support a toothpaste brand over the other because this one has biodegradable packaging, the other unsustainable brand would take note of why they are losing profits, and most likely initiative better environmental practices within their productions. There is no denial that the United States is a capitalist society where economic interests tend to take up more attention than other equally important issues, meaning that voting with your dollar is extremely effective.

There is also of course the important ability to vote with our ballots when advocating for climate action. If scientists were the only groups of people needed to combat climate change, humanity would have already solved this problem. However, political action is needed as well in order for sustainable solutions to come about and be put into action. Unfortunately, not all countries give citizens the right to vote. Therefore, it is crucial in democracies where citizens have the great privilege to vote for individuals to use it!

Register to vote right here:

Another important sector when advocating for sustainable solutions is to promote research and education, as no environmental initiatives will fully succeed if the public is not aware of their importance. Environmental science teachers will continue to arguably be the most essential teacher for the world, along with other environmental connections within academic subjects.

I hope you liked this guide, stay tuned for a Part 2 in an upcoming magazine issue!

Discussion Questions:

  • Which sustainable tip did you find to be the most helpful? How will you implement it into your day-to-day life?

  • Which sustainable tip did you find to be the least helpful? Why would it be very difficult to implement this tip into your life? Do you think others would have a similar problem?

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