How to reduce your carbon footprint in 2023

By Dr Torill Bigg
Dr Torill Bigg, Chief Carbon Reduction Engineer at Tunley Engineering shares her top tips on how we can make small changes to reduce our carbon footprints

The climate crisis has our attention, and quite rightly so. As emissions of gases responsible for the greenhouse effect, and so global warming, continue –- and still need to be slowed. Many of us feel that we are already doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprints at home. Following a plant-based diet has a significant impact on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions avoiding, as it does, those emissions associated with change of land use. Some will have opted for food sourced from no-dig agricultural practices, so conserving the carbon sequestered in soil. And I applaud you all; line dryers, school run walkers, indoor jumper wearers and those that have exchanged gas boilers with heat pumps. There are however the somewhat more recalcitrant, and potentially more obscure carbon emission reduction opportunities, for each of us in our homes, our daily lives and in choices we make.

Time for self-reflection 

I thought I was pretty good; walking, minimising food waste, keeping my energy bills low, reusing water and recycling. Until I started to measure what my consumption of energy, food and water was in kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. What do each of my choices actually mean when it comes to my part in reducing carbon and meeting the greenhouse gas targets that will slow global warming. 

One way or another all of the changes that remain for me to make rely on me to educate myself and quite literally change my ways. From learning how to reset the cooker clock so I could turn it off at the wall for 23 hours a day, learning that charging cables use energy even when no device is plugged into them, to reading the dishwasher manual so I could use the lowest carbon setting for each load. While the cooker clock uses energy in the form of electricity, the dishwasher uses both water and electricity – both of which have different carbon footprints per unit.

Opting for smart swaps

What actions will really reduce our carbon emissions the most? We already know that moving to a plant-based diet massively outweighs reducing food miles by local sourcing. In carbon terms a single vegan sausage saves over 300 grammes of carbon, or over a kilo of greenhouse gases saved for three. 

Fitting and using heating controls can reduce carbon emissions from your home by 320 kg a year. Insulate hot water pipes and the cylinder, fit timers and thermostats. Installing solid-wall insulation could save 930 kg of carbon emissions a year from a gas-heated semi. While smart heating controls offer more options – and apply to electric storage heating too. As the electricity grid becomes ever more decarbonised electric heating, is more and more carbon friendly. If you can create your own renewable energy through solar panels or wind turbines then all the better.

And we know that plastic waste is a tragedy for the planet. But do we know how much better paper is than plastic in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? In carbon terms, a kilo of plastic emits 3 kilos of carbon, more than 300% of the carbon emissions of paper - while to save 1 kilogramme of carbon by reducing our water usage requires water savings of 1,000 litres. So clearly replacing your plastic items with paper, such as for grocery packaging, bin bags, sandwich bags and straws not only prevents plastic waste, but slows the disaster of global warming too.

Water savings can be achieved through simple and accessible things like collecting rainwater, shorter showers and shallow baths but also, for the more ambitious or those who are currently refurbishing or renovating, grey water systems featuring filtration and reuse – or toilets fitted with hand basins that fill the cistern for the next flush with the used water.

While cultivating the habit of switching everything off at the wall is the best policy, selecting low standby energy appliances will help if you can be forgetful – or have children. Selecting a dishwasher that has an optional hot-air drying cycle allowing you to unselect it, and air drying your crockery instead, can save 25% of the dishwasher energy, and so reduce carbon emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the production of furniture, clothing, and our homes themselves. We can specify home finishes that incorporate natural materials. These act as carbon sinks – sequestering the carbon within them as opposed to releasing carbon to the atmosphere. We can create consumer pressure upon builders and architects by requesting the incorporation of natural materials, such as hemp, in walls. 

Clothing can be bought second-hand so that the embodied carbon already spent in its creation gets greater use. Clothing can also be exchanged with friends, and materials that are natural, such as cotton and linen, can be selected instead of manmade such as polyester. This choice not only incorporates natural materials, that are carbon sinks, but also prevents the production of microplastics, which are released into the environment when man made materials are washed.

And this of course is one thing we can encourage our favourite companies to do too; not just selecting an eco-tariff for our gas and electricity use, but requiring the supplier to be accountable too by requesting sight of their ofgem certificates. Select plastic-free food items – and return the plastic packaging to the supermarket it came from. Every kilo of plastic avoided saves three kilos of carbon emissions too. Recycling schemes exist for empty medicine packets, and confectionary wrappers, with online maps to locate your nearest one. 

There are apps for locating places that offer reusable bottle refills with mains water, and schemes to prevent food waste; carbon emissions from waste food and drink exceed that of plastic with nearly four tonnes of carbon emissions from one tonne of food and drink waste. Many supermarkets offer schemes to save food from becoming waste – from wonky veg to ‘too good to go’ boxes. 

Voting with our feet and our wallets and using these schemes fuels an environmentally friendly economy, stoking the fire of its engine with low carbon fuel.

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