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A Consumer’s Guide to Reducing Pollution
A surprising amount of pollution starts at home. The car you drive, the household and personal care products you buy, the chemicals and equipment you use to keep your lawn and garden in shape all contribute to water and air pollution. But there are consumer choices you can make that will reduce your environmental footprint.
Consumers play a major role in creating pollution. By some estimates, household consumption is responsible for the majority of air and water pollution in the world.
But by being aware of how you use water, what you toss in the trash, how you drive and how you use energy around the home, you can take some simple steps to prevent a lot of pollution.
While you may think of pollution as a global problem, reducing pollution from your household can have more immediate benefits by improving your neighborhood’s environmental health.
How to Prevent Air Pollution
A 2015 study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology found consumers account for 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well,” Diana Ivanova, one of the study’s authors, told Science Daily at the time.
Pollution prevention is often a matter of consumer choices. Products that are similar can have much different effects on the environment. The way you use products from your car to lawn care chemicals can significantly affect how much you contribute to air pollution.
The Car You Drive
In 2017, highway vehicles emitted 18.9 million tons of carbon monoxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Such emissions play a role in the creation of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and ozone, that warm the atmosphere. And breathing in higher levels of carbon monoxide decreases the amount of oxygen that reaches a person’s organs and tissues. For a person with heart disease, the health effects can mean a trip to the emergency room or a hospital stay.
Motor vehicles also produce hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter that also contribute to air pollution.
But the way you drive and the vehicle you choose can cut back on not only emissions but also how much money you spend on gas.
Save the environment, save money
More fuel efficient cars not only create less air pollution but can save you hundreds of dollars a year in fuel costs.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Let’s say you travel 15,000 miles per year and the average cost of gas is $2.83 per gallon. You can save about $700 per year if you drive a car that gets 30 miles per gallon instead of one that gets 20 miles per gallon.
And you can potentially improve gas mileage by about 10 percent if you ditch aggressive driving habits that waste gas, such as speeding, accelerating rapidly and braking.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Driving more efficiently or driving less can reduce the amount of air pollution you put in the air. Scheduling your multiple home deliveries so they arrive on the same day can reduce pollution from delivery trucks. And keeping your car in tune and its tires properly inflated will improve your gas mileage while reducing the pollution it puts out.
Consumer products from kitchen cleaners to shampoos now account for as much air pollution in urban areas as all forms of transportation, according to a 2018 study in the journal Science.
Air pollution from cars, trucks and other types of transportation has been declining as the United States and other countries have passed stricter emission standards. But there hasn’t been the same kind of regulation of air pollution from household products like kitchen cleaners and personal care products.
Air Pollution Estimates
Air pollution from industrial products such as paint and household products like cleaners or shampoos may be two to three times higher than official United States estimates suggest.
Source: The Guardian
These products contain volatile organic compounds, also called VOCs. Once these compounds escape into the atmosphere, they can create ozone or other air pollution.
When you burn fuel in your car, only about one one-thousandth of the VOCs in your gas or diesel ends up in the air. But products like cleaners, paints, hair spray and perfumes can pump a larger percentage of their chemical pollutants into the air as they evaporate. And these chemicals can also contribute to indoor air pollution in your home.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Look for “Low VOC” in products’ labels and make sure containers are tightly sealed to reduce evaporation. Buy products with the EPA’s “Safer Choice” label. These are products that work as well as conventional products but are safer for human health and the environment, according to the agency. You can search for and compare products in the Safer Choice database.
Your household energy use may create twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as your car does in a year’s time. More than 63 percent of the electricity in the United States still comes from burning fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Improving energy efficiency in your home can help reduce air pollution.
One way to reduce greenhouse emissions through energy efficiency is to use Energy Star certified products. Energy Star is a partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and companies and state and local governments to certify energy-efficient products that range from light bulbs to home appliances to industrial equipment.
Energy Star and its partners have helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3 billion metric tons since 1992. That’s the same as taking 600 million cars off the road.
Source: Energy Star
The typical household spends $2,000 a year on electricity. Using Energy Star products can save you 30 percent or about $575. At the same time, you’ll avoid putting an extra 5,500 pounds of greenhouse gases into the air.
WHAT ELSE YOU CAN DO: Something as simple as turning off the lights when you leave a room can make a huge difference. A 2014 study in the International Journal of Science and Research estimated excessive use of light wastes 2 million barrels of oil every day.
Motors on lawn and garden equipment are not as clean as the engine in your car. They may be small, but they can pump a lot more pollution into the air. And simply pouring gasoline into their tanks before you crank them up can cause air pollution, too.
Did you know?
Running a gasoline lawn mower for one hour creates as much air pollution as driving a car 300 miles.
Source: New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services
Gasoline spills may seem small, but there can be millions every day. Spills contribute to smog and other kinds of air pollution.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Using electric lawn mowers or using portable gas cans with automatic sealing and shut off features are two quick ways to make your lawn care greener.
Preventing Water Pollution
Polluted runoff and storm water is considered one of the greatest threats to clean water in the United States. In urban and suburban neighborhoods, storm water and melted snow can’t easily soak into the ground. The water runs into storm drains, taking oil, dirt, chemicals and lawn fertilizer directly into streams, lakes and rivers.
Did you know?
Because of surfaces such as pavement and rooftops, a typical city block can create five times as much storm water runoff as a wooded area of the same size.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Simple steps around the home make big a difference in reducing water pollution. Pick up pet waste, keep yard clippings out of storm drains and fix car leaks before the next big rain washes oil and other fluids into your local water supply.
Pesticide and Fertilizer Alternatives to Prevent Water Pollution
Using alternatives to toxic pesticides can reduce water pollution. Pesticides include consumer products like Roundup or other weed killers as well as insecticides. But there are natural alternatives.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Plant native flowers, shrubs and trees that are resistant to pests and can attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. Install bird and bat houses in your yard to combat pesky bugs. A 2018 study in The Science of Nature estimated that globally, birds eat nearly a half trillion tons of insects a year.
Take a similar approach with fertilizers. Nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates in fertilizer can overstimulate water plants and algae. Phosphorus has been called “junk food for algae.” It fuels algae growth, which kills fish and other life in waterways.
Fact One pound of phosphorus can produce 10,000 pounds of water weeds and algae.
Source: City of Carmel Engineering Department
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Hire a certified lawn care professional or carefully follow label directions. Too much fertilizer can damage plants and pollute groundwater. Leave grass clippings on the ground after you mow to create a free, slow-release fertilizer. The Peace Corps also offers instructions for making your own less-toxic pesticide alternatives from natural ingredients.
Reducing Landfill Waste
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated Americans threw away more than 260 million tons of solid waste in 2015. That came to 4.48 pounds of trash per person every day of the year. More than half of the waste ended up in landfills.
More than 91 million tons of solid waste were recycled and composted in 2015. Another 33 million tons were burned to generate energy.
Paper, food and yard trimmings accounted for more than 54 percent of all solid waste in American cities. In many cases, all three could have been either recycled or composted.
Landfills also contribute to air pollution. Organic material buried in landfills creates landfill gas as it decomposes. The gas is about half carbon dioxide and half methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides directions on how to compost your household’s organic waste into natural fertilizer
Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States. They produced about 14 percent of methane emissions in 2016.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Compost organic waste such as food scraps and grass clippings to keep waste out of landfills and help your lawn or garden grow. Don’t just recycle paper, glass and cans; buy products made with recycled materials. And opt for reusable products from cloth mops to rechargeable batteries instead of disposables.
Please seek the advice of a qualified professional before making decisions about your health or finances.
Last Modified: August 18, 2022
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Terry TurnerSenior WriterTerry Turner has been writing articles and producing news broadcasts for more than 30 years. An Emmy-winning journalist, he has reported on consumer policy issues before Congress, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies.
Edited ByKim BorwickEditor
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