Solar Tribune

Climate Change Action: Reduce/Re-Use/Recycle More in Daily Life

Some of the earliest ‘green’ advice many people got was in the spirit of reduce/reuse/recycle. The idea was the more we could strive to implement those ever-important three R’s into our lives, the less waste would end up at landfills and the less production would need to go into the creation of new materials. Climate change may not have been at the forefront of people’s minds when they first learned about reduce/reuse/recycle, but in today’s climate-conscious world this advice retains importance for the power it can have to reduce our carbon footprints. The reality is that not only does the creation of new products and materials cost energy and require transportation (both of which add to the carbon lifecycle of the product), but the more that ends up in the landfill the more decomposition there will be to methane, the most potent of greenhouse gases.

So an important step towards any household’s climate adjustment journey includes the classic advice to reduce, reuse, and recycle, including the following main actions:


Make Your Home More Energy Efficient

energy efficient home retrofit insulation climate change

What the action looks like: The most climate-friendly type of energy, they say, is the energy that’s not generated because it’s not needed– rather than Megawatts, think of then as neg-a-watts. The more efficient you can make your home, the less energy you will use daily, and the more your carbon footprint will be reduced. Integrating energy efficiency measures into your home can take many different forms, with common ones including using LEDs instead of incandescents, installing more energy-efficient appliances, installing insulation and high-performance doors and windows to reduce the amount of heat that leaks through the building envelope, and more. Many energy efficiency upgrades can start with a home energy audit performed by trained professionals at vendors or even from your utility provider.

What the impact is: According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:

Homeowners and renters alike can benefit from an energy audit. An audit will evaluate energy bills, insulation, heating and cooling systems, electrical systems and appliances to determine how much energy your home consumes, and where energy is wasted. The auditor will make specific suggestions to increase your home’s energy efficiency. Following through on the recommendations could lead to savings between 5 and 30 percent on your energy bill. Improving your home’s energy efficiency doesn’t just save money.

Level of difficulty: Moderate– efficiency upgrades can be easy, like replacing a bulb, or they can be expensive and difficult, like installing new large appliances or installing insulation. It’s best to have an energy professional involved when considering the more difficult options.

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Home Energy Audits by U.S. Department of Energy

Energy Savings at Home by ENERGY STAR

Smarter House

“We preach energy efficiency before renewables for both individual homeowners and businesses. It’s in your best interest to make your building as energy efficient as possible so that you reduce your load and your emissions as possible, and then you consider renewables. It’s more efficient dollar-wise to focus your efforts on the efficiency of buildings before considering renewables. We take a whole-building approach, and it’s first important to arm people with information through energy assessments of buildings. And a great part of it is that most of the opportunities for efficiency we find, people can do themselves.” – Tony DePrima, Energize Delaware Executive Director

“One observation we can take out of how the world has adjusted during the time of COVID-19 is the type of energy usage that has been avoided when we look at the world differently. For example, for all the people who could no longer go to their gyms who changed to just running out in the fresh air, that’s a lot less energy needed to run those facilities. And for all the vehicles that are now off the road and planes grounded, the energy reduction directly and indirectly in doing that is unprecedented. While home energy use may have increased, it’s a smarter energy use. Think of all the office buildings that keep lights on 24 hours per day, heat huge unoccupied spaces (don’t touch the thermostat sticker!), but now that energy is being used at home where people turn off the lights when they’re not needed as they have control. These are the type of thoughtful actions people can learn from.” — Alan King, CEO of Dusk Mobile

“To reduce my home’s carbon impact, I use an air source heat pump to heat my house in Minnesota in the Springs and Falls. I turn off my natural gas boiler then, and the air source heat pump is up to the job. I got this pump for my home because I figured out that the warming climate meant for two weeks each year it was just impossible to get anything done because it was too hot while the in-window air conditioners couldn’t do the job. We switched to an air source heat pump for air conditioning purposes but it also is good for heating the house most winter days and in the shoulder seasons. Soon cold weather air source heat pumps will be available to stand up to the polar vortex very cold days of Minnesota winter, some years.” – J. Drake Hamilton, Fresh Energy


Recycle at Home

recycling climate change

What the action looks like: One of the earliest environmental messages most people got was the value of recycling. Because of the immense time, energy, and resources that go into extracting elements from the earth and forming them into cans, glasses, and paper products, ensuring those materials can be reused effectively will offset the need to continue to create those products from scratch. While the transport and recycling process is not one free from emissions and energy use, it is (especially for aluminum) a net positive for emissions accounting.

What the impact is: According to Green America:

Our national recycling rate, meaning the amount of materials recycled and composted from our total waste, is roughly 35 percent. This reportedly reduces 184 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or the equivalent of taking 39 million cars off the road. And it would be even greater if the US surpassed a 50 percent recycling rate and joined world leaders like Germany and Taiwan.

Level of difficulty: Low—are you not recycling? There’s no reason not to recycle

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Recycling and Climate Change by North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality

Source Reduction and Recycling: A Role in Preventing Global Climate Change by U.S. EPA

Benefits of Recycling by Stanford University


Reduce Wasted Material

reduce waste climate change

What the action looks like: Reducing waste can be even more valuable than recycling, which is why the ‘reduce, reuse’ part of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ deserves more focus. Rather than recycle material, ensuring that it doesn’t need to be produced in such quantities in the first place or find ways that organic material can be returned to the earth and not put in the waste streams is critical. Two of the more commonly known strategies for reducing waste are to use reusable grocery bags and to compost your kitchen and garden scraps. When you bring your reusable grocery bags, you prevent the need for added plastic or paper bags to be used for the same purpose. Those single-use plastic bags that you would otherwise get from the groceries not only require energy use and associated emissions for their production and transportation to the store, but they then end up in landfills and contribute to environmental degradation and climate change. Similarly, when you send your unused food scraps (whether uneaten food or inedible parts like banana peels and peanut shells) to the landfill with the rest of the garbage, not only are there fossil fuels burned to transport this extra waste to the landfill but once they are in the landfill the conditions cause them to decompose anaerobically and release greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, by performing home composting with your organic food scraps, you’re able to attack your carbon footprint in two directions.

What the impact is: A study by the Environment Agency found that:

To have lower global warming potential than single-use plastic bags: paper bags should be used three times low-density polyethylene bags (the thicker plastic bags commonly used in supermarkets) should be used four times non-woven polypropylene bags should be used 11 times cotton bags should be used 131 times.

According to U.S. EPA numbers:

Nationally, the composting of food rose from 1.84 million tons in 2013 (5.0 percent of food) to 2.6 million tons (6.3 percent of food) in 2017. In 2017, Americans recovered over 67.0 million tons of municipal solid waste through recycling, and almost 27 million tons through composting. This is 1.13 pounds per person per day for recycling and 0.45 pounds per person per day for composting. Food composting curbside collection programs served 6.1 million households in 2017.

Level of difficulty: Varies depending on the practice; using reusable bags is easy because they are affordable and readily available whereas composting is high because you need enough space and knowhow to properly implement composting in your home

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

How Banning Plastic Bags Could Help New York Mitigate Climate Change by Earth Institute, Columbia University

Plastic Bags, or Paper? Here’s What to Consider When You Hit the Grocery Store by The New York Times

How much can composting help to reduce my carbon footprint by The Eco Guide

Composting at Home by U.S. EPA

“Thinking about the plastic associated with what you buy and the waste created by your consumption pattern is important. When getting some items delivered to your house, you could look for products that are packaged in recyclable material, or, when placing orders on Amazon, try to place multiple orders so they can come in a single package delivery in a given day. This can have a notable impact in reducing the carbon footprint from transport, and packaging.” – Yamide Dagnet, Senior Associate Project Director at World Resources Institute

“For waste materials that too often end up in our rivers, we can embrace innovative solutions. We have bamboo, we have cloth kitchen towels instead of paper towels, and we can reduce waste in this way and reuse products and materials. By not just pointing out solutions, like single-use materials, but also educating about solutions and making those solutions very comfortable for the average person, it doesn’t have to be an expensive solution and it can be easy to get access to those solutions for more people.” – Winnie Cheche

“From the sustainable fashion perspective, I’ve tried to encourage people not to shop or when they do shop to do so thoughtfully, take a long time to decide, and spend their money wisely or even buy second hand. You can still be fashionable and have a great wardrobe without buying something new every week. We’ve been trained that shopping is the answer to all our problems, but if people were more aware of their shopping habits and the companies, they support they can make a bigger impact on sustainability on a global scale.” –  Michelle Tyler


This page is a part of the Solar Tribune Series on how individuals and policymakers can tackle climate change. Click here to see the overview of this series and see the other categories of action.

Recent Posts