14 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

In Wisconsin, the effects of climate change have already become apparent. Over the last several years the state has been challenged by the warmest and wettest decade on record, early and toxic algae blooms in Lake Mendota, and diminished ice cover on Wisconsin lakes. The winter of 2024 was especially mild, marking the warmest winter in state history. 

With all of these factors, individuals may be wondering how their choices contribute to and affect climate change. Recent research suggests that it’s time to revisit the idea of personal carbon allowances, or rather, the idea that individual action can have a meaningful impact on reducing the damage done to the environment. 

A carbon footprint is defined as the total amount of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that are emitted into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gasses. An individual’s carbon footprint represents the combined total of the products they use, the activities they undertake, and their behaviors. Major polluters in the petroleum industry originally promoted and weaponized the carbon footprint as a way to make people blame their daily actions for global warming. Nevertheless, taking steps to lessen an individual climate footprint can empower passionate individuals and students around the globe to do their part, even as we must hold  big industries accountable to do the same.    

Here are some simple changes students can make to reduce their personal carbon footprint: 

  1. Turn the lights off when you leave a room or your home or apartment, or when natural light is sufficient. 
  2. Minimize plug load. Cut down the number of appliances you are running. Consolidate your perishable items and share a fridge with your roommates. This eliminates the unnecessary use of energy by numerous appliances which can save you money on your electric bill. 
  3. Reduce ghost power. Use a power strip to easily unplug or turn off electronics when not in use. Even if your electronics are powered down, they continue using energy.
  4. Take the stairs. Elevators consume energy; stairs provide exercise. 
  5. Take shorter showers. The less hot water that you use, the less energy needed to heat the water! To learn more about sustainable water use, check out Sustain Dane’s Water Stewardship program. 
  6. Replace old light bulbs with LEDs. Although they cost more right off the bat, they use ¼ of the energy and last up to 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Check out Focus on Energy’s website where you can claim a free sustainable home kit! 
  7. Recycle. Learn what types of materials are recyclable in your community and be diligent about using  a recycling bin in your apartment, house, or dorm room. Read the Campus Recycling Guidelines to learn about recycling on UW–Madison’s campus. 
  8. Reuse. Think about the potential for continued use of an item before throwing it out. How can you repurpose it? Or, if you don’t need it anymore, look into giving it to a friend or donating it to extend the item’s life. Consider Re-Wear It, a registered student organization on campus that hosts free clothing swaps and workshops!
  9. Eat low on the food chain. Mostly fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Animal products are responsible for a huge portion of greenhouse gas emissions.
  10. Reduce food waste. Plan meals ahead of time, freeze any excess food, reuse leftovers, and share with friends when you make too much. You can also participate in food scrap drop off programs offered throughout the City of Madison, or participate in at-home composting through resources like GreenBox and Curbside Composter.
  11. Clothing swap
    Clothing swaps are a great way to avoid fast fashion.

    Avoid fast fashion. Trendy items go out of style quickly and get discarded into landfills where they produce harmful greenhouse gasses as they decompose. Buy quality clothing that you can keep and continue to wear for a long time and shop secondhand. Some thrift stores in the Madison area include St. Vincent de Paul and Rethreads.

  12. Drive / Uber less. Walk, bike, take a bus, or rideshare when you need to commute. Transportation is a major source of carbon emissions in the U.S. Making changes in the ways you get around can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Visit the transportation page on the Office of Sustainability’s website to find some other transportation resources in the campus area!
  13. Shop local. Buying items locally cuts down on the supply chain carbon footprint of the product. Local goods are manufactured often in a more sustainable way and are transported much smaller distances. Check out the City of Madison Farmers Markets for opportunities to buy local produce and goods!
  14. Use appliances efficiently. Wash your clothes on the cold cycle, and always do your laundry in full loads. Every load uses the same amount of water and energy, so doing full loads every time ensures that the energy and water are being used as efficiently as possible. This also goes for the dishwasher: only run it when it’s completely full! If you need a dish cleaned sooner, wash it by hand.

By: Maddy Doeden