(This piece was originally published on January 16, 2017 in The Herald Bulletin.)
ANDERSON – As a new year dawns, people commonly resolve to lose weight, exercise more or spend less time watching television.
But local environmentalists are issuing a different challenge to Hoosiers: Reduce your everyday impact on the environment by measuring your carbon footprint and making simple lifestyle changes.
“It’s something we don’t always think about – but once you focus on your carbon footprint and the environment, it becomes second nature,” said Greg Spencer, an environmentalist living in Anderson.
A carbon footprint is a measurement of carbon dioxide emitted by the use of fossil fuels, such as coal, gasoline and natural gas. The burning of fossil fuels contributes to global warming.
As an arborist and naturalist, Spencer has been focused for years on living green. He’s guided by a keen understanding of the effects of deforestation, urbanization and industrialization on the planet.
Recently, Spencer has taken steps to better manage his personal environmental impact, doubling down on recycling and replacing old, wasteful light bulbs with LED bulbs. He’s also lowering his thermostat a few degrees this winter to save energy.
Spencer puts his green-minded practices to work as the course superintendent for the Anderson Department of Parks and Recreation, where he’s implemented a no-excuse recycling program and pushed for more land conservancy efforts.
Practices such as recycling, taking shorter showers and buying local are quick and easy ways to lower a person’s carbon footprint
The Environmental Protection Agency suggests, among other measures, changing the five most-used light bulbs in your house to energy star-qualified bulbs. This would cut carbon production for power and save you about $70 a year on electric bills.
Recycling used newspapers, beverage containers and other paper or plastic containers not only stops them from going into landfills, but also reduces the need to mine or harvest virgin resources. Recycling 10 aluminum cans, for instance, saves enough energy to power a laptop for 57 hours, according to the EPA.
Recycling can be set up by calling the local Solid Waste Management District and requesting service. Then, a customer can separate recyclables, like most glass and aluminum bottles, tin cans and paper products, and put them in an approved bin.
For communities without curbside recycling programs, a potential recycler can haul their recyclables to a certified recycling center. A list of centers in Indiana is available on the Indiana Department of Environmental Management website.
If it’s simple to reduce your carbon footprint, why isn’t everyone doing it?
Because it’s so easy to ignore your everyday impact on the environment, according to Jim Poyser, executive director of the Indianapolis-based environmental advocacy group Earth Charter.
“We have done a good job at making it invisible,” he said of the use of fossil fuels to power our everyday lives. “The process is designed so we don’t think about it.”
Just about everyone knows recycling is the “right thing to do,” Poyser said, but when disposable plastic and Styrofoam cups are the norm, it becomes too easy to just toss it into the trash without a second thought.
That’s why Poyser works to bring environmental consciousness into the classroom with projects such as #JUSTTRAYNO, in which Earth Charter partnered with Indianapolis Public Schools’ Sidener Academy for high-ability students to introduce environmentally-friendly lunch trays.
The project was conceived after Poyser talked about recycling to a group of fifth-graders and asked a student to bring a lunch tray to the talk. When he told them the polystyrene tray would spend centuries decomposing in a landfill, the students decided they had to do something.
“So they contacted experts, did the science, and made a Powerpoint presentation to (Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent) Lewis Ferebee,” Poyser recounted.
Ferebee was so impressed, Poyser said, he asked the students to make a presentation to the school board. As a result, the school system is purchasing cardboard trays, which are more friendly environmentally.
“The idea is they (the students) achieve a victory, then they just keep going for bolder and broader initiatives,” he said. “And of course they are taking it home; they are taking it to their church, their communities, and ultimately using it when they have their own families.”
Making changes to reduce your carbon footprint can have collateral benefits too, Poyser said, other than a good feeling of helping the planet or saving a few dollars on the electric bill.
“For myself, I picked a bicycle over a car… it had its own reward system built in,” he said, alluding to the extra exercise he’s gotten. “Most of the things you choose to do to lower your carbon footprint actually end up making you happy, and they become their own reward system.”
Carbon footprint and business
INDIANAPOLIS – Though efforts by individuals to lessen their environmental impact are important, businesses, which use far more energy than any one person or family, are able to make large impacts with small changes.
“Having adopted many environmental practices ourselves, we can vouch for the benefits in terms of cost savings, morale, and a good feeling of doing the right thing,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.
The HEC works as an environmental watchdog group that also offers businesses and corporations advice on changing practices that can lower carbon footprints.
The easiest ways to save energy, and therefore reduce the amount of coal or gas used to make power, is to install energy-efficient lighting, clamant control systems and windows, Kharbanda said. These steps also work to save the company money in the long run on electricity and heating and cooling bills.
Corporations can also work to encourage their staff to take up more environmentally-friendly practices including offering priority parking for carpool, electric or hybrid vehicles, encouraging recycling or moving to a plastic-free office.
“Morale wise, it leads to better working environments for employees,” Kharbanda said. “Economically, it generally saves money.”
Another option for businesses is purchasing carbon offsets.
The idea is to purchase, usually through companies specializing in offering carbon offsetting, assets that help to sequester carbon like the planting of new trees or protecting forested land, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Many airlines and vehicle rental companies offer businesses the option of adding carbon offsets to the ticket or expense.