We are faced with countless dilemmas each day that have an impact on the environment: Paper or plastic? Cloth diaper or disposable? Aluminum can or glass bottle?
Warren Leon, co-author of The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, says that while those decisions are important, don't sweat the small stuff: "The biggest impact you can have is when you're making a big decision."
Transportation, food and household operations make up 60 to 80% of our environmental impact. Knowing the areas where you contribute most to environmental damage will help you make good decisions that have major benefits.
Give the Hummer the Heave-Ho
Our personal transportation habits have the biggest impact on global warming, air pollution, water pollution and habitat alteration. By switching to a fuel-efficient vehicle, you're making a huge difference in your daily environmental impact.
While it may be hard to reduce the amount of driving you do by 40%, many people could buy a car that gets 40% better gas mileage than the one they drive now.
Start your research with our list of this year's top 10 most fuel-efficient vehicles. An even bigger decision? Try where you choose to live in the first place. If you live near work, school and stores, you can walk or take public transportation -- alleviating the need for a car altogether.
Get Out of the Car. Now.
Most people can't go entirely car-less, but could certainly reduce the number of miles they drive. In the book, Leon suggests keeping a household travel log, accounting for daily trips and odometer miles at the end of each week or month.
Set a household goal: Can you reduce the number of miles you drive by 10 or 20%? Then aim to cut back about 5% each month until you reach your goal. Celebrate knowing that once you reduce your driving by 20%, you're lowering your household's total contribution to global warming and air pollution by about 5%. (Just don't drive to the celebration.)
One suggested motivational tip was to imagine gas is more expensive than it really is -- remember when gas cost $4 a gallon?! Check out our suggestions for changing your habits to spend far less on gas. Carpool, take public tranportation, walk, ride a bike -- or try an electric bike for an efficient and virtually effortless commute.
Beef. It's What's Not for Dinner.
Meat production causes more environmental harm than any other food -- from the fertilizer (usually derived from fossil fuels) to the feed (enough to feed dozens of people) to the greenhouse gases (yes, cow burp is potent).
Suzanne Shaw from the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that most of our cattle come from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that don't work with nature: They confine animals away from grazing, they feed them food that isn't natural to their diets, they create huge amounts of waste that doesn't become fertilizer for farms but often runs off into waterways, contaminating drinking water and killing fish and other aquatic life.
If Americans just cut back on the amount of meat we eat, it would have a huge impact on global warming emissions nationwide. Follow Michael Pollan's mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He means real foods -- that is, unprocessed foods like those your grandmother would recognize.
Don't Panic, Just Go Organic
You might buy organics for your own health, but organic produce is also more environmentally friendly. Among other requirements, certified organic produce cannot be grown with the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. Organic meat cannot be produced with antibiotics or artificial hormones.
According to the Consumer's Guide, a shift to organic agriculture would vastly reduce both water pollution and water usage.
Get started with The Dirty Dozen -- those foods that either take large amounts of pesticides to grow, or which tend to have pesticide residues.
Be a Good Neighbor (to Mother Earth)
Choose your home carefully. Shaw says that our population is growing at a much slower rate than our land use -- we're sprawling everywhere! And we want bigger homes; the size of the average house has nearly doubled since the 1970s.
Of course, when you have a larger house it takes up more space and uses more resources. The greatest impact, according to a Consumer's Guide chart, is on land use. Huge homes and developments break up natural habitats. "When you start breaking up forests and farmland and replacing them with houses and yards with plants that don't support the native species, that really degrades the environment," Shaw says.
And think about the community you will become part of. Leon asks, "Do you live in a place where your neighbors will be mad if your lawn doesn't look like a golf course, requiring you to use harsh pesticides?"
If you're constructing a new home, materials come into play. Buying recycled materials or wood from a sustainably managed forest, for example, will make a big difference in your home's environmental impact.
Electricity seems awfully clean at home, but it's fueled by coal-burning power plants; the more electricity an appliance uses, the greater its environmental impact. There are several changes a homeowner can make, however, to reduce the environmental damage.
It seems cliche to tell people to change their light bulbs, says Shaw, but this does make a difference. Get a more efficient furnace to replace your old, polluting one. Add insulation to your home to prevent hot or cool air from escaping.
And consider the appliances that are the biggest energy hogs: refrigerators. Do you have an extra fridge in the basement that you use only to store trays during the holidays? If you can't bear to part with it, just unplug it when it's not in use.
In addition, there are an increasing number of utility companies offering renewable energy options. Shaw says if you invest in some of these options at home, paying maybe $7 extra on your bill, it can really help renewable energy mature in the marketplace.