Eight simple but meaningful things you can do for the environment
Stanford experts share their favorite tips for incorporating sustainability into your life at home, at work, and in your community.
Looking toward the year ahead, people might want to make some resolutions that support the environment. But what actions actually make a difference? And what is a reasonable goal to attain? We asked those questions to some of Stanford’s sustainability experts, who very much believe that we can each contribute to a better world through relatively simple acts.
“Our individual choices matter for ourselves, our communities, and our planet,” said Desiree LaBeaud, professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine. “By getting aligned with our deep values and intentionally making sustainable choices in our behavior, we simultaneously improve our own well-being and serve as a role model for others around us.”
Alongside LaBeaud, the following tips are courtesy of Nicole Ardoin, the Emmett Family Faculty Scholar and an associate professor of Environmental Behavioral Sciences in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (SDSS); Alison Bowers, senior research associate in the Ardoin Social Ecology Lab; Barbara Erny, adjunct clinical associate professor of allergy and immunology at Stanford Medicine; and Ellen Oh, director of interdisciplinary arts programs in the Office of the Vice President for the Arts.
1. Reduce, reuse, then recycle
The three Rs are actually in order of best practice. “People should try to focus more on reducing and reusing, rather than recycling,” advised Ardoin, citing a recent Nature Sustainability article about people’s bias toward recycling.
LaBeaud, for her part, reuses hard-to-avoid plastics – like those that bread and tortillas are sold in – to separate and carry produce rather than using the store’s plastic produce bags.
Recognizing the growing understanding of the impact of clothing waste on the environment, Bowers recommends shopping at secondhand or thrift stores.
2. Turn waste into art
“Just like Denning Visiting Artist Jean Shin, recycle/reuse cast-off materials to make art projects,” said Oh. Shin worked with LaBeaud’s nonprofit, HERI in Kenya and across Stanford, including LaBeaud’s lab, to make large-scale sculptures from plastic waste. Sea Change was unveiled on Earth Day 2023 in the center of Diani-Ukunda in south coastal Kenya, and Plastic Planet was presented in May 2023 in the lobby of the Stanford School of Medicine’s Biomedical Innovations Building.
Not only does this type of art keep materials from landfill, it can also help people reflect on and elevate sustainability topics. For more on the intersection of art and the environment, catch up on this discussion with artists Kim Anno and Gao Ling on art as a tool for environmental justice, which happened at Stanford’s O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm in spring.
3. Flex your power
Stanford research encourages electric vehicle (EV) users to charge their EVs in the daytime and at work. In places with solar and wind power, there tends to be excess electricity available during the day. And charging at work can avoid overwhelming local, neighborhood grids. “We were able to show that, with less home charging and more daytime charging, the Western U.S. would need less generating capacity and storage, and it would not waste as much solar and wind power,” said lead author Siobhan Powell, mechanical engineering PhD ’22, in a press release about the work.
Even without an EV, the same idea applies to household appliances. “I save energy by washing dishes and clothes in the daytime when energy needs are less and power is less expensive,” said LaBeaud.
4. Eat more plants
Recent Stanford research on food-related carbon footprints found that a ground beef hamburger patty has a carbon footprint that’s eight to 10 times higher than a chicken patty and around 20 times higher than a vegetarian patty. To reduce meat consumption, Erny recommends starting by replacing beef once a week with a plant-based protein source, shrinking your portions of meat, adding legumes and nuts to your meals, and experimenting with plant-forward culturally traditional recipes.
Additionally, a new Stanford Medicine-led trial of identical twins comparing vegan and omnivore diets found that a vegan diet improves overall cardiovascular health.
5. Cut down on food waste
“There is never enough emphasis on food, which is responsible for 37% of U.S. greenhouse emissions,” said Erny. She added that 40% of edible food in the U.S. is wasted, and the majority of that is food wasted by consumers. Erny’s tips to address this include bringing your own carry-out container to restaurants, planning meals to avoid over buying, getting creative with leftovers, and being sure to compost food scraps.
6. Get in touch with nature – even if you’re indoors
“Spending time in nature-rich settings can help build a sense of place, which research indicates can support a range of pro-environmental behavior,” said Ardoin. “And time in nature has a host of personal benefits, such as improved physical and mental health,” offered Bowers. A 2022 study, which Ardoin co-authored, suggests that even the presence of natural materials – like wood furniture instead of plastic – and of a window can help with stress reduction.
You don’t need to travel far to achieve these benefits, Ardoin and Bowers added, because they can accrue from visiting urban nature settings such as pocket parks, as well as interacting with street trees and even indoor plants.
7. Take the train
If you’re hesitant about trying out train travel, take inspiration from the journey of sustainability scientist Kim Nicholas, environment and resources (E-IPER) PhD ’09 and former visiting scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. In lieu of a traditional wedding, she planned a cross-continent train trip with her husband-to-be. “If you’re someone who flies and drives frequently, especially long distances, your carbon footprint is materially important to addressing the climate crisis,” said Nicholas. She recommends reducing overconsumption, particularly of transport, which, she explained “for the wealthy, and especially the top 1%, is about 60% of our total footprint.”
8. Use your voice
Discuss your sustainability goals and concerns with friends, neighbors, and even local leadership. “Talking about sustainability issues within your social networks and seeking out social connections based on a shared interest in sustainability can be an important step toward making a difference,” said Ardoin. In this vein, working with local parks and schools, Ardoin’s Social Ecology Lab developed the Dear Planet Earth project, an initiative designed to encourage reflection on our place in a changing planet and inspire action.
Ardoin noted that leveraging collective action is key to effectively addressing a range of sustainability challenges, from climate change to biodiversity loss, among others.
Recognizing that these topics can be hard to broach, Erny offered the following advice: “Talk about climate change as it relates to human health. It is often the most accepted way of communicating about the issue.”
Many of our experts also stressed the importance of voting with the environment in mind. “Consider candidates’ stances on sustainability and environmental issues when voting,” suggested Bowers.
“All changes start with one spark, one person doing the right thing. It is how societies advance themselves,” said LaBeaud. She also offered the following quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Ardoin is also a senior fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and an affiliate at the Precourt Institute for Energy. Erny is also a faculty fellow at the Center for Innovation in Global Health (CIGH). LaBeaud is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, a faculty fellow at CIGH, and a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Maternal & Child Health Research Institute (MCHRI).