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25 Tiny Everyday Changes You Can Make to Cut Back on Air Pollution

The air you breathe may be hazardous to your health. Try these simple ways to combat the air-pollution crisis and help turn things around.

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Oil refineries polluting carbon and cancer causing smoke stacks climate change and power plants in Corpus Christi , Texas a massive large refineryRoschetzky Photography/Shutterstock

Climate change has led to an uptick in air pollution around the world. As the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) reports, the two are closely related. Air pollutants from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, for example, exacerbate climate change, and climate change heats up the planet and exacerbates poor air quality. It’s no joke. Air pollution adversely affects our health (think: respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and lowered fertility in men) and leads to premature deaths—4 million a year from exposure to outdoor emissions alone. Instead of waiting around for global governments to make a change and require significant emissions cuts from polluting industries, here’s how you can take matters into your own hands.

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Subway Train in New York before SunsetWilliam Perugini/Shutterstock

Change your mode of transportation

Yes, you have to get to work, but you don’t necessarily need to drive your car there every day. Is it possible for you to take public transportation or ride with a colleague? The nonprofit What’s Your Impact reports that by carpooling twice a week, you can keep 1,600 pounds of greenhouse gases (GHGs) out of the air per year. And subways and metros produce about 76 percent fewer GHG emissions than single-passenger cars, according to the Federal Transit Administration. If you decide to walk or bike to work, this is the exact speed you should go to breathe in less air pollution.

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energy star labelPaul Sakuma/AP/Shutterstock

Look for the Energy Star label when shopping

The Energy Star label conforms to standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “significantly” reduce GHG emissions in various appliances for sale in the United States. When it’s time to replace your fridge, television, air conditioner, washer/dryer, light bulbs, or any of the numerous electronic gizmos around your home or office, the EPA recommends looking for this label and its accompanying rating.

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House cleaning product on wood tableChutima Chaochaiya/Shutterstock

Avoid products with VOCs

The glass and surface cleaners, dish soaps, paints, and glues you use to keep your house clean might be harmful to the environment—and your health. In fact, scientists believe that some of these products contribute to levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the air and are comparable to those from vehicle exhaust pipes. The research maintains that such products “now contribute fully one-half of emitted VOCs in 33 industrialized cities,” and as a result, “efforts to mitigate ozone formation and toxic chemical burdens need to be adjusted.” Instead, choose greener, less potentially toxic products. For example, you can find low- or no-VOC primers and paints, cleaning products, and even shower curtains, to name a few. Be aware of these household items that are literally poisoning your air.

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Close up, exhaust pipe of family car Nym_Pleydell/Shutterstock

Keep your car in tip-top shape

According to the EPA, keeping your vehicle well-maintained can cut down on emissions. Make sure your car and boat engines get frequent tune-ups and keep tires properly inflated. “When tires are not inflated to the pounds per square inch (PSI) rating recommended by manufacturers, they are less ’round’ and require more energy to begin moving and to maintain speed,” reports ThoughtCo. And this, of course, contributes to air pollution.

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Closeup shot of man inserting key in car ignition lockkryzhov/Shutterstock

Don’t turn on your car until you’re ready to go

One big way to get your vehicle to emit fewer GHGs? Stop idling, says the EPA. Idling cars and trucks cause unnecessary pollution and engine wear—which, in itself, also produces emissions. Idling school buses are even worse since they use diesel fuel and expose kids to noxious fumes. Don’t miss these 9 scary things air pollution does to your body.

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Selective focus man's hand on steering wheel, driving a car at sunset. Travel backgroundKostenko Maxim/Shutterstock

Be a better driver

Yes, you read that right. It’s one of the smallest, sanest things that you can do to stop emitting so much fuel when you drive. How do you go about this, exactly? Don’t slam on the brakes and gun the gas pedal advises the EPA. Instead, try to maintain an even, steady speed. Your fellow drivers will also thank you for being a less erratic presence on the road.

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Middle aged man with snow covered car in driveway on extremely snowy day with snow fallingSvineyard/Shutterstock

Leave your car at home in bad weather

Is the weather awful, or is the air quality predicted to be worse than usual? Consider not driving at all. Every drive you take—no matter how gingerly you brake or how fuel efficiently you accelerate—contributes to GHG emissions. And in snowy climates, your snow tires actually lead to an increase in fuel consumption, according to a study published in the journal Progress in Energy and Combustion Science in 2016. Wondering how bad the air quality is where you live? These are the most (and least) polluted cities in the world.

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Driving down the roadGordanD/Shutterstock

Maximize your car’s potential

As it turns out, even driving on warm summer days can be worse for air pollution than you might think. That same study discovered that roof racks increase drag and, therefore, energy inefficiency. An easy fix: Pack all your gear inside your car for road trips. And air conditioning is also a big emitter, resulting in pollution increases of 5 to 10 percent. Instead, leave the windows open, or keep the ambient air in the car to less-than-glacial temperatures.

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Kids having fun gardening

Go green in the garden

Your garden and lawn are two other prime spots for GHG emissions. As with your vehicles, the EPA recommends keeping the engines of your mowers and trimmers well-maintained. Better yet, cut down on the number of gas-powered tools you use, or eliminate them altogether. Try manual mowers, for example, or look for that Energy Star label on any new equipment you purchase.

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dry leavesImYOUR/Shutterstock

Get rid of leaf piles

That pile of leaves and grass trimmings decomposing in your yard may seem harmless, but it’s not. Leaves spend the summer absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, and when they fall to the ground and begin to decay in autumn, they emit all of that carbon back into the atmosphere. “In fact, the natural decay of organic carbon contributes more than 90 percent of the yearly carbon dioxide released into Earth’s atmosphere and oceans,” according to an article published in MIT News. Mulch or compost yard waste instead.

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Burning fireplace. Fireplace as a piece of furniturePan_Da/Shutterstock

Burn less

Is the air quality poor today? Then it’s important not to burn anything—not leaves and garden trimmings, not wood in your fireplace. Burning even all-natural products such as these releases carbon back into the atmosphere and contributes to GHG emissions. In fact, try to cut back on burning stuff every day of the year if you can. If you have osteoporosis, listen up: Air pollution could actually make your condition worse.

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New cars with down window in line studio isolatedAnyVidStudio/Shutterstock

Make one trip, not a million

Just as you waste energy getting up 16 times from the couch to fetch water, snacks, and then another drink, find your reading material, and use the bathroom, so does your vehicle when you make multiple trips. But worse, that vehicle is an air-polluting energy hog, too. Got a bunch of errands to run? Walk to them if you can, bringing a granny cart to carry heavy items. Or make a list that helps you make one continuous loop—and so you don’t forget anything and have to go back out again.

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work-callUber Images/Shutterstock

Host your next meeting online

Does everyone really need to come from far and wide to be in the same room for an hour? Let’s be honest: More often than not, the answer is no. When you can, skip the travel, and instead get everyone together virtually. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality notes that teleconferencing and telecommuting can save fuel and time—both of which are precious. On a grander scale, here are 5 crazy ideas that just might save the planet.

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closeup of hand touch electric-switch pixfly/Shutterstock

Turn off the lights

You’ve probably heard this refrain since you were a kid, but it was true then and it’s necessary now: Turning off the lights saves energy. Not using the kitchen? Turn off the lights in that room. Not planning to go back outside tonight? Turn off the porch lights. “When you consume less power, you reduce the amount of toxic fumes released by power plants, conserve the earth’s natural resources, and protect ecosystems from destruction,” points out Save on Energy.

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small organic marketShuang Li/Shutterstock

Don’t waste food

Decreasing our food waste is something we should all be aiming for in our lives. An astonishing 40 percent of food in the United States gets tossed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). And if the idea of all of the methane being released by your wasted 400 pounds of food per year as it decomposes in a landfill doesn’t horrify you, consider all the GHGs released in preparing farm land, irrigating crops, and trucking them to market. To make a dent in this problem, resolve to buy only what you and your family can reasonably eat in one week and freeze whatever you don’t use. Check out these other tricks to cut back on food waste (and save money).

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Mix of succulent flowering house plants pots garden top view panattar/Shutterstock

Use your green thumb

You know what offsets carbon emissions? Growing green things. Whether you’ve got a whole yard at your disposal or just a sliver of urban windowsill, consider planting some herbs, flowers, cacti, whatever, recommends Conserve Energy Future.

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Front loading washing machine overloaded with colorful dirty clothes, close up viewZanna Lecko/Shutterstock

Wash your clothes in cold water

Yes, your appliances use energy, and burning fuel to make that energy contributes to air pollution. You may not have the time or inclination to wash your clothes by hand. But something as simple as reducing your washer’s water temperature will help save on emissions. And on a nice warm, dry day, why not consider hanging your clothes on the line to dry?

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Black metal trash bin full of crumpled waste paper on white wooden floorboard. Top down view.Cagkan Sayin/Shutterstock

Don’t waste paper

It’s a very small thing, but getting the most out of your paper products is also a way to be more efficient and less wasteful. Why? Manufacturing uses gobs of energy. Plus, when these items decompose, emissions are released. Conserve Energy Future suggests doing what you can to expand the life of your paper products. For example, write on both sides of the pages in your notebook, and reuse paper bags until they start to fall apart.

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StrawberryKomsan Loonprom/Shutterstock

Skip packaged products when possible

What you buy has a big impact on emissions. If you can purchase products that come with zero packaging (for the same reasons outlined above for paper products), that’s best. For example, get loose tomatoes instead of ones in a clamshell, or opt for a bouquet of flowers not encased in plastic wrap. Or look for products—eggs, toilet paper, garbage bags—that come in packaging that’s made from recycled materials.

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socksEsmeralda Edenberg/Shutterstock

Put on a pair of fluffy socks

Baby, it’s cold outside! And yes, we know how great it feels to get all warm and toasty on a frigid evening. But rather than cranking up the thermostat, put on a sweater, cover bare feet with socks, and, for sleeping, throw an extra blanket on your bed. Turning your thermostat down by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) can save 300kg (661 pounds) of carbon dioxide a year, according to a report in the Guardian.

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Three golden shower valve handles ona big white empty tile shower roomVlue/Shutterstock

Turn down shower temps

For the same reason that using your drier contributes to air pollution, so does running the hot water. But there are some easy ways you can reduce your hot-water usage. In addition to washing your clothes on a cooler setting, try to accustom yourself to less-than-scalding showers.

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Organic labeled fruit packed for convenience in plastic container Ana Iacob Photography/Shutterstock

Buy organic

Yes, organic food tends to be more expensive than food that’s been conventionally grown. But according to the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, eating organic food results in a smaller carbon footprint because it requires 30 to 50 percent less energy during production. Can’t afford to go all organic, all the time? Pick a few items you eat regularly and commit to buying organically grown varieties of them.

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Ready to eat New York black angus steak with ingredients on a cutting board. Ready meal for dinner on a dark stone background.aleksandr talancev/Shutterstock

Eat less meat

There’s no need to go full-on vegan or vegetarian to address the United Nations’ recent findings that livestock production results in more than 7 gigatons of carbon a year. To make an impact, you just need to reduce the amount of meat you eat. Make vegetables the main focus of your dinner plate, for example, or commit to eating one fewer meat-containing meal a day, a week, or a month.

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Summer fruit and berry assortment. Flat-lay of strawberries, cherries, grapes, blueberries, pears, apricots, figs in eco-friendly boxes over grey background, top view, close-up. Local farmers produceFoxys Forest Manufacture/Shutterstock

Buy local

The closer to home your food was produced, the less it had to travel in pollution-emitting vehicles to get to you. Check out a local CSA, or walk or bike to your neighborhood farmers’ market and buy unpackaged fruit and vegetables from a local producer that you pack into your own reusable totes.

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Write to your representative

Got a few extra minutes in your day? Consider sending an e-mail to your local representatives to ask them to vote in favor of air-pollution-reducing measures in your community. That might include things like green-lighting solar-energy projects, supporting community gardens, or increasing funding for public transportation.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.