How to Reduce Your Technology Carbon Footprint

Reducing your technology carbon footprint has both environmental and economic incentives.
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Many of the tools we use today make modern life extremely convenient. Something as simple as a coffee maker, for instance, lets us make coffee almost instantly and as often as we want. Bigger and more seemingly impressive things, like cars and computers, have changed our lives dramatically, making it easier for us to travel greater distances or gather information at the click of a button.

But even though we probably don't think about it every time we use one of these things, the convenience most gadgets offer comes with a cost, both environmentally and economically. Whenever we turn on a light, watch television or drive to work, we're using energy. To create most of this energy, we have to burn fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal, all of which release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases, which trap heat from the sun in our atmosphere and contribute to global warming -- raising temperatures around the globe.


In recent years, people have used the term carbon footprint to loosely describe the way people create direct and indirect carbon emissions. For the purposes of this article, we'll talk about carbon footprints in terms of the individual. Therefore, a person's carbon footprint is simply a measure of how much CO2 someone produces while doing everyday things.

CO2 output is measured in pounds, and the average emissions per person in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is 20,750 pounds per year [source: EPA]. Of course, everyone is different. But whether you're above, below or at that average, it's still possible to reduce your technology carbon footprint, and many people are taking steps to reduce. This not only lowers the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere but also gives us a little bit of economic reassurance, since we save money by spending less on energy.


Determining Your Technology Carbon Footprint

Once you gather all of your gas and electric bills and any other carbon-related data, online carbon calculators can help you determine your personal footprint.
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Before you even start to think about reducing your technology carbon footprint, you first need to determine the size of your carbon footprint. There are several different ways to do this, but to begin you should collect any recent electric, gas and oil bills you receive for your household. This lets you looks at real numbers instead of estimates, either in dollars or in kilowatts per hour. Also, because your energy bills will vary according to the season depending on how much energy you use to heat or cool your home, try to get the best possible average of your spending during the winter and summer months.

It's also good to get an idea of how much you're traveling, and any estimates regarding how many miles you drive weekly or annually and the average gas mileage your vehicle gets.


Once you have these things in mind, the easiest way to determine your technology carbon footprint is to use on online carbon calculator. These tools, like the one from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), base their calcuations on general estimates of things like average fuel economy, electricity usage and waste disposal in America. Once you plug in your personal numbers, the calculator compares those averages with your personal data. You then can have a relatively accessible number that you can hold up against the typical technology user.

Of course, some of us drive less than others or take the train to work, while others' jobs require more driving. Some homes are bigger than others, so it might take more energy to heat or cool a particular house. Even the area you live in affects your carbon footprint, since different places use electricity created from different kinds of fuel, and this is often one of the first things a carbon footprint calculator will ask you.

So everyone's carbon footprint measurement will ultimately be different, but the steps people can take to reduce emissions can help. What can you do to reduce your carbon footprint?


Reduce Carbon Emissions at Home

Many of our household appliances add to our carbon footprint, but if you pay close attention to how you use things and adjust accordingly, you can reduce emissions.
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At home, there are some things you can start doing immediately. With the flick of a switch or push of a button, you can easily regulate your use of electricity. All of the basic appliances and gadgets you use throughout your house, including lights, televisions, DVD players, video game systems, computers and so on, can be turned off when not in use. Most of the time, for instance, people only need one light in the room they're in, but sometimes it's easier to turn lights on and leave them on as they move from one room to another. And some people leave televisions or game systems running, even when they're not in the same room watching or using them. Many people have gotten used to leaving computers on and plugged in, but this can waste a lot of energy, too, especially if the computer's sleep mode isn't on.

One thing to keep in mind: Because many appliances use energy -- and therefore cost you money -- simply by being plugged in, you can counteract this waste by unplugging things like toasters when they're not in use. If you want to go a step further and avoid the constant task of plugging and unplugging, you can buy a power strip and plug several devices into one outlet. Power strips have on/off switches, and you won't waste any electricity once the power is turned off.


You can also switch to more energy efficient technologies. The EPA recommends products with the Energy Star qualifications, especially light bulbs and computers. Switching to green power, or an environmentally friendly electricity program, is also an easy way to quickly reduce both the amount of emissions you create and the amount of money you spend. You can call your current power company to ask about green power, or you use the EPA's green power locator for U.S. states. There are other changes you can make, too, such as making sure your home is properly insulated and installing more efficient technology.

Reduce Carbon Footprints with Commute Alternatives

Paying attention to your power consumption can give you a better idea of your carbon footprint.
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When it comes to traveling, avoiding the car is maybe the best way to reduce carbon emissions. Public transportation, biking or walking are potential alternatives. If none of these options are available and you have to use a car to get around, there are still several things you can do to cut down on CO2. If you're looking for a new or used car, do some research to determine the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can afford. If you find you're stuck with the car you have, you can make better driving choices by stepping lightly on the gas and brake pedals and avoiding hard accelerations. Another factor to consider is that the more weight your car carries, the harder the engine will have to work and the more fuel it will burn, so unload your vehicle as much as possible before taking it for a spin.

Making sure your car is well-maintained is also important. The better shape your car is in, the more fuel-efficient it will be -- as a side benefit, it may be worth more and safer on the road, too. A well-maintained engine will last longer, and any time you change your oil you should also check your air filters. It's also a good idea to check your tire pressure often, since poor inflation adds wear on your tires and can reduce fuel efficiency.


On your way to work, you can also carpool, sharing the ride with several coworkers. And when you're at the office, pay close attention to the amount of power you're using. Most offices use laptop computers, but people don't always turn them off or place them in standby while they're away from their desk. You can also unplug power cords when computers aren't in use or use a power strip to better control the flow of electricity.

And wherever you are, whether it's at home, at work or in the car, make an effort to reduce, reuse and recycle. This helps in the long run since it cuts down on the amount of resources we have to use in order to make new products.

For more information on saving electricity and related topics, charge over to the next page.


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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Reduce your carbon footprint." (Feb. 23, 2009)
  • "What is a carbon footprint?" (Feb. 23, 2009)
  • "What are carbon emissions?" Feb. 9, 2009. (Feb. 23, 2009)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Climate change: greenhouse gas emissions." Sept. 19, 2008. (Feb. 23, 2009)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Climate change: what you can do." Feb. 18, 2009. (Feb. 23, 2009)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Household Emissions Calculator." (Feb. 23, 2009)