It’s no secret that driving a personal car is one of the worst ways we affect our planet. It’s also no secret that many people drive cars to their work because a lack of public transit infrastructure and a culture of suburban living means there’s often no other option.

But let’s talk impact and then the different ways we can offset the environmental guilt around your long commute. Note I say environmental guilt: it’s unlikely you’re going to come out carbon positive when you’re commuting long distances; however, you can take action to feel like you’re making a positive impact.

The impact of commuting by car

The EPA estimates the average car emits around 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year. Obviously the final number depends on a variety of factors, but that statistic “assumes the average gasoline vehicle on the road today has a fuel economy of about 22.0 miles per gallon and drives around 11,500 miles per year” (source). If you’re commuting long distances it’s likely that number is a lot higher.

This National Geographic article also does a great job of explaining a car’s environmental impact beyond just the primary issues of CO2 emissions from driving. Like any heavy technology or machinery, the production costs of cars in terms of energy/resources is quite high. This means the less frequently you buy (and buying second hand when possible) is another important aspect of reducing the impact of your vehicle.

The end result of using a resource-intensive product daily? Many intrepid zero waste curious find themselves stuck in a routine at odds with their beliefs. So what exactly can we do?

ways to reduce your impact

I’ve listed five ways to reduce the environmental impact of a long commute below. Try one or all and see what works best for you!

If you don’t have to drive, don’t.

This may seem like a no-duh kind of idea, but for many people the habit of driving cars is so ingrained the option to do something else isn’t even on their radar.

If you work downtown in a mid-sized to large city, there’s a good chance you have a pretty easy public transit route to and from work. If you work in a popular area, there’s also a good chance you can find a carpool buddy who works nearby and has a similar schedule. If you live relatively close to work, there’s a good chance you can bike for a majority of the year.

Explore your options and see what other transport opportunities might be undiscovered.

Telecommute or collapse your work week.

If you haven’t heard the term before, telecommuting is basically a fancy way of saying work from home. Studies show that about 50% of the workforce in the USA have a job compatible with telecommuting and the impact of taking advantage of that opportunity is huge for both employee and company:

If those with compatible jobs and a desire to work from home did so just half the time… the national savings would total over $700 Billion a year including:

  • A typical business would save $11,000 per person per year
  • The telecommuters would save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year
  • The greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road.

There are many ways to shift your work schedule to free up a day or two each week to work from home. This article has lots of information about how to approach your boss about telecommuting. Remember: like everything with zero waste, even a small shift (just one day a week at home) can have a huge impact.

I’ve never worked in an office job, so worry not shift workers – it’s not impossible to do this. When I first moved to Lafayette I still had a job in Indianapolis. Instead of driving five times a week for an 8-hour shift, I switched to two 16-hour and one 8-hour shift. I understand this is a personal thing, but there are commuting reduction opportunities for a large number of people. And who wouldn’t enjoy less driving?

How to offset the environmental guilt around your long commute - Green Indy Blog

Invest in carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets are a certain amount of money to fund a carbon positive project that will cancel out your carbon emissions. Projects include big items like developing alternative energy sources or protecting large swaths of at-risk ecosystems down to smaller projects like providing clean cook stoves for households or small farms planting trees. Obviously carbon offsets won’t be able to mitigate the immediate damage caused by commuting, but they do help to create long-term projects that help to negate the overall effect.

It’s also a good idea to discuss this with your management; many companies look for relatively low-cost ways to look good and building carbon offsets into the budget may be a great way to do that.

I’ve written a full post about how to buy individual carbon offsets here.

Reduce food waste.

While the main culprits of food waste are the producers and most waste happens long before food even gets to the supermarkets, Western consumers in particular are complicit in wasting a huge amount of food. An oft-cited FAO study found “54 percent of global food wastage occurs during production, post-harvest handling and storage, and 46 percent at the processing, distribution and consumption stages.” 

And while it’s disgusting enough that so much food goes to waste as people starve, the environmental impact is staggering. In fact, the carbon footprint of food wastage is third only to all the carbon emissions of the USA and China.

So while consumers have limited control over what appears in supermarkets, you can get serious about reducing your food waste and seriously offset the impact of your commute. Start by getting rid of food waste as much as possible, composting what goes bad, and asking local farmers to buy the ugly produce they’d otherwise get rid of.

Go vegan or plant-based.

Veganism is one of the highest impact ways of reducing your CO2 emissions. I wrote recently about why veganism isn’t for everyone, but reducing your animal product consumption is still important. If you’re feeling bad about your commuting emissions, take a look at these numbers.

A 2014 UK study showed the GHG emissions of different diets:

  • high meat-eaters: 7.19 kgCO2e/day
  • medium meat-eaters: 5.63 kgCO2e/day
  • low meat-eaters: 4.67 kgCO2e/day
  • fish-eaters: 3.81 kgCO2e/day
  • vegetarians: 3.81 kgCO2e/day
  • vegans: 2.89 kgCO2e/day

If an average car burns 8,887 grams CO2/ gallon (source), then switching from a medium meat-eater diet to a vegan diet is the equivalent of saving about 3 gallons of gas every day. Depending on the car you drive, that could be 100+ miles!


The truth is commuting is always going to have an impact. That being said, know that living in an imperfect system rarely allows us to live the low-impact life we’d like to. So if commuting by car to work is your only option, find other ways to be kinder to the planet in ways that make sense for your life.

Do you commute? How far?  Do you have any other ways to reduce the impact of driving so frequently that weren’t addressed here? I’d love to hear in the comments.


Polly

An online resource here to help you break down the complex issue of zero waste into simple, actionable steps.

4 Comments

Kim · September 17, 2018 at 11:58 am

Huh, odd that I find one of your photos resembles an area where I live, and it’s in another country

    Polly · September 17, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    Not odd, they’re creative commons stock photos.

ecoanouk · September 18, 2018 at 11:39 am

Just found your blog and I’m so glad I did! Very comprehensive post, although it’s sad that (and I think you’ll agree with me) most people don’t even think about things this way. Imagine if everyone who could do it used public transport! Imagine if people ate less meat and more veggies and fruits! Imagine if we all reduced plastic consumption and stopped indulging in fast fashion!
Sigh. Thanks for spreading the green message so well, though. It’s SO important.

    Polly · September 18, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    Totally agree with all of this – our habits are so ingrained most of us have HUGE blind spots to the things we do that have a huge impact. Thanks so much for stopping by!