A carbon footprint measures the impact a person or business has on global warming, by describing the overall amount of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) that are directly or indirectly emitted. A carbon footprint is usually expressed as the weight of carbon dioxide emissions (in tonnes), produced per year, estimated from emissions data multiplied by the emission factor (the amount of greenhouse gases emitted for each activity in tonnes).
A consumer’s personal waste footprint is the carbon footprint of the amount of waste a consumer generates, e.g., food waste or packaging waste. It is part of the overall carbon footprint of a product, which includes manufacture, transport, storage and waste.
The environmental impact of waste
Packaging waste usually ends up in landfill or is incinerated. Out of all waste materials, plastic waste has the highest impact on the environment – it takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, and it breaks down into fragments of plastic less than 5 mm in length (microplastics) which can affect reproduction and growth and also cause organ damage and inflammation in humans and animals on land and in the ocean.
Landfill damages the environment in a number of ways. It destroys wildlife habitats due to the immense amount of space it takes up as well as fires that occur from the build-up of toxic gases, creates greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane) which contribute to climate change, toxins leak into the soil disrupting land and water biodiversity as well as polluting human drinking water supplies.
Both landfill and incineration have a negative effect on air quality, which affects local public health, e.g., an increased risk of respiratory, nervous system and gastrointestinal disorders as well as life-threatening conditions such as cancer. The more sustainable packaging that can be used the better!
There are several changes consumers can make in their daily lives to reduce their personal waste footprint:
- Reducing food waste, for example by meal planning, using products after the best before date if they seem okay (smell/taste test!), using leftover vegetables for stews, batch cooking and freezing meals
- Avoiding buying food wrapped in plastic
- Composting food waste
- Taking reusable cups to coffee shops, shopping at stores that offer refillable products (shampoo, food) and bringing your own reusable shopping bag
- Avoiding using single use straws in drinks
- Bulk buying items that are used regularly
- Opting for products that come with sustainable packaging, for example dissolvable cornstarch peanuts or green shrinkwrap made from renewable resources
- Buying second-hand clothes/electronics instead of new ones
- Reducing takeaway consumption
- Disposing of rubbish carefully in public areas (no littering!)
- Repairing broken items or upcycling
Many consumers are keen to be more eco-conscious and reduce their overall carbon footprint. Rather than trying to make substantial changes that are difficult to maintain, it’s more effective to introduce small to medium lifestyle changes that are feasible to stick to long-term. Of course, those who are keen environmentalists may consider buying an eco-house (a carbon neutral build that is constructed from renewable resources, uses minimal and renewable energy and optimal solar orientation). Below are a multitude of ways consumers can reduce their overall carbon footprint:
- Reducing energy consumption, for example switching lights and chargers off when not in use, hanging clothes out to dry rather than using the tumble dryer, or at least using tumble dryer balls to reduce drying time
- Reducing internet usage (data requires servers, which use energy)
- Avoiding leaving devices such as TVs, computers, and microwaves on standby – they should be turned off and unplugged when not in use
- Look into ways to make your home greener, for example, reducing energy use with improved insulation or double glazing or solar panels
- Shopping local, especially for food, as this minimises fuel missions
- When online shopping, consider getting parcels delivered to a local collection point rather than directly to home
- Choosing eco-friendly products such as beeswax wrap instead of clingfilm, bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic, period underwear ore reusable cotton pads instead of disposable sanitary towels, or solid shampoo bars instead of shampoo liquid in plastic bottles, material nappies rather than disposable ones
- Avoiding buying single-use plastic items as much as possible
- Choosing plastic products that have been created using a proportion of recycled materials
- Saving water by using a water butt to collect rainwater to water your garden, adding a water saver device toyour shower, using a timer to reduce shower time or replacing some baths with showers
- Eating less or no meat, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions
- Making fewer car journeys (e.g., cycle to work or car share) and consider whether a smaller car would be feasible, or switching from a petrol to an electric vehicle
- Driving more efficiently by gentle acceleration and braking, ensuring tyre pressure is at the optimal level, minimising weight (e.g., hoarding things in the boot!) and ensuring the vehicle is serviced regularly
- Taking fewer flights to help reduce fuel consumption and air pollution
- Minimising printing things out to save paper, which reduces deforestation, the use of substantial amounts of energy and water
- Reducing online shopping habits such as ordering several clothes with the intention of returning several, or bulk buying to minimise transport emissions
- Taking unwanted clothes to charity shops rather than disposing of them with household waste
- Recycling, upcycling and reusing as much as possible