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How to slash your eco-footprint—and save money at the same time


Climate change is harming the world's food supply at a catastrophic rate, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and covered by the New York Times.

The adverse affects on the world's food supply, including food shortages and increased costs, could have devastating consequences for billions of people.

"Barring action on a sweeping scale...climate change will accelerate the danger of severe food shortages," reports the Times. "As a warming atmosphere intensifies the world's droughts, flooding, heat waves, wildfires and other weather patterns, it is speeding up the rate of soil loss and land degradation, the report concludes."

Unfortunately, individuals changing their behaviors and consumption habits won't put humanity back on track. As the Times' story notes, the report calls for "a major re-evaluation of land use and agriculture worldwide," for governments and businesses to step up their collective responses to climate change.

"[T]he longer policymakers wait, the harder it will be to prevent a global crisis," reports the Times.

But for those who want to do something in the face of a looming climate crisis, there are some simple changes you can make. And if you need more motivation, these tips will also potentially help you save money.

Waste less food

Of course, government and business policies about food waste will have the largest impact, but individuals can also make strides to become less wasteful, particularly in countries like the U.S., where 30 to 40% of the food supply is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Worldwide, about one-fourth of the food supply is wasted, according to the U.N.'s report.

Buying and consuming only the food you need is one of the easiest and most impactful ways to reduce carbon emissions. An added bonus: Less food waste means less money wasted.

"I would say, first of all, eat the food you have," Anne-Marie Bonneau, who blogs at the Zero Waste Chef, tells CNBC Make It. "That's the nice thing about the problem, we can eat the problem."

She suggests shopping your pantry and refrigerator before you go to the grocery, freezing leftovers and serving smaller portions. When you're at the farmer's market or grocery store, opt for the "ugly" fruits and vegetables.

"The best fruits are wonky, because that's what fruit looks like when it grows," she says.

Another important step: Stop relying on recipes to make meals. Often they require using small amounts of ingredients, the rest of which is wasted.

"If you learn how to make a few basic things like soup or a stir fry, you can just use what you have on hand," she says. "You'll waste a lot less food, too, and save money. There's no down side to this."

Eat less meat

Cutting down on meat consumption, particularly beef, is one of the most powerful steps individuals in nations like the U.S. can take to reduce their carbon footprint and help the planet, according to the U.N.'s report.

"Cattle are significant producers of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, and an increase in global demand for beef and other meats has fueled their numbers and increased deforestation in critical forest systems like the Amazon," writes the Times.

The report notes that making our diets more plant-based could reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by up to 8 billion tons per year by 2050. A 2018 study published in Nature found that western countries should aim to reduce beef consumption by 90%, replacing it with beans, lentils, chickpeas and other legumes.

If you're not ready to go full-on vegetarian, consider instituting "meatless Mondays" or marking other days of the week for meat-free meals. Not only is cutting back on meat good for the environment and your wallet, but it is likely good for your overall health as well.

"This is a chance to eat a healthier diet," says Bonneau. "These things aren't hard, and you're going to save money and eat better."

Reconsider your transportation options

A 2017 study in Environmental Research Letters found that there are four major actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint, including living without a car and taking fewer flights.

Opt for public transportation whenever possible, and bike and walk when you can. Like with eating less meat, this step has the added bonus of being good for your health, too.

Cut out single-use plastic

While it can be overwhelming to start the zero-waste lifestyle, Bonneau notes the best place to start is by banning plastic from your life. To begin, she suggests:

  • Cut out single-use plastic items like grocery bags, straws (yes, straws), plates, etc.
  • Stop buying drinks in plastic bottles. Plastic Free July, an organization that encourages eco-friendly practices, includes single-use coffee cups and water bottles among the "Top 4" biggest offenders that people can cut out of their lives.
  • Banning processed foods and other "convenience" items that come packaged in plastic from your life. Instead, consume "real" food.

Bonneau recommends making your own reusable cloth bags (she offers tutorials on how to make them out of cloth you already have). If accessible, shop locally at bulk food stores, farmer's markets and thrift or second-hand stores.

Reusable products like sandwich or snack bags can be expensive to buy new, but will end up saving money over the long term. And products like ceramic mugs, plates, bowls, etc., can be had for very little at thrift stores. Glass jars are perfect for food storage, says Bonneau, who has hundreds of glass jars that she's saved over time to store leftovers, lunches and everything else. You can often pick up jars at restaurants, or ask your family and friends for theirs, she suggests.

"If you have pickle jars and the lid smells, put them out in the sun smelly-side up, and that removes the smell," she says. "I save a lot of money by doing this."

It can be difficult to shop plastic-free in the U.S., where stores and companies emphasize convenience. As CNBC Make it previously reported, the truth is that much of the responsibility and effort falls on consumers to make changes.

Learn some life skills

Another of Bonneau's top tips is to learn some basic life skills, like sewing and gardening, so that you are less dependent on consumerism to meet your basic needs.

"Consumerism and our reliance on convenience has rendered skills such as gardening, cooking, sewing, knitting, carpentry and so on as, well, quaint," she writes. "These skills not only boost your self-sufficiency, they can be meditative, which reduces anxiety."

Bonneau has a collection of do-it-yourself recipes for staples like yogurt, breads, milks, broth and more, and tutorials on sewing patterns for various goods.

Bonneau offers many tips on dealing with the "eco-anxiety" that might start creeping in when going zero waste gets difficult. The most important: Do something.

"Choose one step you can take now to reduce your carbon footprint — eat lower on the food chain, take public transportation, divest from fossil fuels, reduce your plastic consumption or volunteer at a environmental organization," she writes. "Next, take another step. Repeat. Keep going."

It can be easy to fall into thinking that taking eco-friendly steps is too difficult, or pointless given the enormity of the problem. But Bonneau's message is this: Just do your best.

"I see lots of confessions on social media from zero-wasters feeling terribly guilty when they slip up," she writes on her blog. "Just keep trying."

Don't miss: What I learned from adopting a 'zero waste' lifestyle

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I tried to live on zero waste for one week – and I barely survived
I tried to live on zero waste for one week – and I barely survived