How to Calculate Your Ecological Footprint — and Reduce It

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Our environment is made up of everything around us — like air, water and land — and the people, animals and plants that live in it. These living things all rely on the environment to stay healthy. When environments are in good condition, the plants, people and animals that live in them tend to be healthy too. When environments are unhealthy, though — meaning they’re polluted or damaged — the living beings within them have a harder time staying healthy.

Sometimes, when people think about helping the environment, they think about it in terms of the large changes governments and businesses make to clean up the earth on a broad scale. While these organizations have an important role in helping the environment, there are also plenty of small changes individual people can make in their lives to help clean up the environment. When millions of people make these small changes, their efforts work together to make a big difference. To understand how you can start making these changes, too, it’s important to learn what your ecological footprint is and how you can improve it.

What Is an Ecological Footprint?

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You may have heard of a carbon footprint, water footprint or environmental footprint before. Ecological footprint is a new term that covers all three of those concepts. Ecology is the study of how living things interact with their environment. Humans are living things, and humans have a big impact on the world and the plants and animals they share it with.

An ecological footprint is a measure of the total impact a person has on the environment. It includes things like how much water they use in a day, how much energy they use to heat their home in a year and how much land is needed to grow the food they eat. All of these factors go into measuring a person’s ecological footprint.

An ecological footprint includes things like:

  • The amount of carbon dioxide a person’s habits produce, directly or indirectly
  • The amount of farmland required to support their eating habits
  • The number of trees chopped down each year to support the person’s activities
  • The amount of land they live on
  • The amount of water the person uses

The final number is expressed as a measurement. The units you’ll see representing an ecological footprint are hectares of land or tons of carbon.

Why Should You Understand Your Ecological Footprint?

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When you understand your ecological footprint, it can be easier to make meaningful changes that help you have a more positive impact on the environment. Looking at your ecological footprint helps you understand how you’re personally involved in either helping or hurting the world. When you know this, you can start taking steps to change your impact for the better. There are plenty of environmentally friendly, “green” habits you can adopt to reach your goals. Knowing your ecological footprint mainly helps you understand which habits can help you do the most good.

For example, recycling is viewed as a helpful habit in general. However, imagine that you live in a region where there aren’t many recycling companies. It may require a huge garbage truck running on fossil fuels to travel an extra hour each week just to come pick up your recycling. This produces a lot of extra carbon dioxide that pollutes the environment. So, you might make a more significant impact on the environment by taking shorter showers, using less plastic and volunteering to plant trees than you could by recycling.

There are many trustworthy websites you can use to determine your ecological footprint. These include:

  • The World Wildlife Fund’s online tool  
  • The Global Footprint Network’s online ecological footprint calculator 
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon footprint calculator — it’s specific to your ZIP code for even more accurate results
  • Conservation International’s calculator at Conservation.org
  • The Nature Conservancy‘s interactive online tool

How to Shrink Your Ecological Footprint

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Transportation, energy use and eating habits are three of the biggest ways people produce greenhouse gases and use up limited natural resources. Biking or walking from place to place is a great way to shrink your ecological footprint. When possible, it’s best to conserve resources by using public transportation. If none of these options is available, you can reduce your ecological footprint by carpooling.

The people in your house can also reduce their ecological footprint by using energy-efficient appliances. Energy-efficient appliances use fewer natural resources to run. You can also change the bulbs in the lights around your home. LED light bulbs last longer than CFL light bulbs, and they use less energy. Even with energy-efficient light bulbs installed, you can reduce your carbon footprint more by conserving energy. This means you’ll turn off a room’s lights when you’re not in it. You can use natural sunlight for as long as possible during the day as light in your home. It’s also helpful to unplug appliances and chargers from the wall when you’re not using them.

The meat and dairy industries use a large number of natural resources. It takes lots of water to give animals on farms enough to drink, and it takes even more water to grow enough crops for the animals to eat. About 70% of the freshwater humans use is used on farms. To conserve water and reduce their ecological footprint, many people choose to start eating less meat and fewer dairy products like milk and cheese. Many families practice Meatless Mondays, which means they don’t eat meat on Mondays. This helps them eat less meat overall and reduce their ecological footprint.

Ecological footprints show that every person plays an important role in how healthy our environment is. When many people make a few small changes together to reduce their footprints, it can lead to a positive impact on the environment and make our world a healthier place.

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