You have a sense of environmental responsibility. Instead than purchasing throwaway coffee cups every time, you bring your own reusable cup. You choose a cotton tote over single-use shopping bags. You recycle consistently. But do the little things you do to be environmentally friendly in your day-to-day activities actually make a difference? Are there any other things you ought to be doing?

It is more challenging than you might imagine to quantify the overall environmental impact of the small adjustments we make to be environmentally friendly. The intestines of a seabird won’t become clogged by a cotton bag, but does its production require extra carbon? While switching to soy milk may lower dairy emissions, are we also destroying rainforests to grow it? And is plastic necessarily bad?

Here’s the truth about some of the simple things each of us can do to make a difference.

Should you use a reusable tote bags instead of  plastic shopping bags?

It’s more difficult than you might imagine. Plastic grocery bags have been observed by all of us discarded on the ground or floating in rivers and oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which harms marine life, is mainly caused by waste plastic. Even if it’s likely that you won’t see a pricey canvas tote bag stuck in a tree or cinched around a turtle’s neck, there are still other things to take into account.

What it takes to develop the alternative is the key factor. A cotton bag uses a lot more resources than a plastic carrier bag, which means it consumes more energy during production and emits more emissions overall. Is the fact that you reuse it several times sufficient to offset this? Depends, really.

“Life cycle assessment,” which evaluates the influence of a product throughout the course of its whole life, is one method of gauging environmental impact over time (but does not consider the litter issue). A 2011 life cycle assessment report from the UK Environment Agency revealed that, assuming you never reused the carrier bags, you would need to use a cotton bag 131 times before its “global warming potential” was less than using disposable carrier bags. In contrast, you would only need to use a plastic bag for four uses.

The impact varies from bag to bag, according to Simon Aumônier, a partner at the environmental consulting firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM). He remarks, “Those cotton tote bags are not all the same. “They can have cotton from various suppliers and be of various weights.” The effects of moving heavier cotton bags and washing them when they grow filthy must also be considered.

Importantly, how much you reuse the carrier bag will determine how well a cotton tote compares to them. Do you reuse it after one usage or do you throw it away? You may get twice as much use out of the bag if you use it twice. Aumônier uses the reuse of a plastic carrying bag as a garbage bag as an example. You really haven’t altered anything if you then convert to cotton bags and end up purchasing disposable bin bags as a result.

The secret to using cotton bags is to reuse them as frequently as you can. According to him, “you maximize its longevity and minimize its production impact on a use-by-use basis.” “The risk is that customers won’t worry about that and will instead buy another cotton bag since the first one is soiled or has a new brand to display. This gives the impression that you are being ecologically friendly, but in reality, you are using just as much as or even more resources than you would if you were using a throwaway bag.

Should you use reusable coffee cup?

This one is little simpler. 
Reusable cups require more resources to produce than disposable ones, but because of their durability, you’ll probably use them for long time before replacing them, effectively spreading out the expense across many uses (as long as you don’t lose or destroy them). 
If disposable cups were recyclable, finding balance would be more challenging, but we are aware that the majority are not, or at least are not recycled on regular basis. 
This implies that no energy is extracted from them and they end up in landfills.

the environmental costs connected with the development and processing of various materials vary. According to Aumônier, “each substance will have different impact” on how it is sourced and processed. The final product’s ability to be recycled after use will also affect the overall effect.

regardless of what you choose, the key to minimizing your environmental impact is to reuse the same cup as much as you can. 
Washing has an influence as well, so be sure to wash effectively. Do complete load of dishes at once rather than just washing your reusable cup.

What’s up with domestic recycling?

You should recycle, indeed. There isn’t much you as an individual can do about reports that UK plastics are being transferred abroad for recycling but instead ending up in landfills, even though this is definitely something that merits investigation. Therefore, it is advisable to proceed as though your recycling will be recycled.

The majority of uncertainty, according to Katy Wheeler, a sociology lecturer at the University of Essex and researcher on recycling in the UK. How can you determine whether the plastic packaging you are discarding is recyclable? Facilities differ across the nation, so while one location may be able to recycle many forms of plastic, another region may only be able to collect plastic bottles ( has a handy postcode checker so you can see what is recyclable where you live in the UK).

Should you throw anything in if you’re unsure if it can be recycled? Once more, it depends. How recycling is done in your location is one thing to take into account, according to Wheeler. People are sometimes asked to separate their recyclables into several categories so that they can be picked up curbside, such as paper, glass, plastics, etc. In other places, local government agencies provide “commingled” recycling, in which all recyclables are placed in the same bag or box. Then, at a facility for materials recovery, these are separated somewhere else. According to Wheeler, “that technology can recognize various types of plastic to varying degrees, so if you do put the incorrect kind of plastic into these material recovery facilities, it is likely that you may contaminate that specific load of recycling.” The garbage may then be redirected, either for a second sort that involves additional labor or to another location for that facility’s waste, like a landfill or an incinerator.

Similar contamination risks exist when filthy things are placed in recycling bins. For instance, if you mix paper recycling with recycling from a filthy bean tin, the paper may become unrecyclable due to damage from the bean juice. In particular, if you mix recyclables in one box, Wheeler advises washing your recycling to be safe. This is because most material recovery facilities will start with the initial sort of the recycling using some kind of human labor, which could harm the process moving ahead. Additionally, nobody wants to drink your spoiled bean juice.

Wheeler argues that while recycling is crucial, we should also be concentrating on reducing the quantity of waste that we produce in the first place. Prioritize reducing, reusing, and recycling before recycling.

Should everyone simply stop using plastics?

People are currently striving to avoid consuming things that are made of plastic or packaged in plastic as part of a trend known as “going plastic free” on social media. But not all plastic is harmful. Since plastic is sturdy, flexible, light, and frequently recyclable, there’s a reason we use it for so many different things. If you’re replacing plastic with something else, you’ll need to consider the various effects of creating the different materials.

Oceanographer and climate scientist Erik van Sebille of Utrecht University has witnessed personally the effects of plastic garbage entering the oceans. However, he argues that you cannot examine a single environmental influence in isolation. He asserts that “the plastic problem can’t be noticed by itself.” There will always be a trade-off between plastic use and carbon dioxide emissions, and it is entirely possible that ceasing to use plastic may result in increased emissions of carbon dioxide in the future. This is significant since the main threat to our oceans is climate change.

In their 2012 book Why Shrink-Wrap a Cucumber?, Stephen Aldridge and Laurel Miller used the shrink-wrapped cucumber as their titular example. Packaging a fruit in single-use plastic may seem like a bad idea for the environment, but it can make the fresh product last three times as long, which reduces waste, the need for deliveries, and emissions.

In the end, waste management—rather than plastic—is the main cause of the issue with plastics in the oceans, according to van Sebille. “Making sure it doesn’t go into the environment is more important than just using less plastic,” he argues. This includes picking up plastic trash when you see it laying around; doing a beach clean-up is another highly efficient method of preventing plastic from entering the ocean. What are you waiting for? According to some research, participating in a beach clean-up can even enhance your own mental health, he continues.

Should you switch to soy milk instead of dairy milk?

Additionally, the food we purchase and consume may have various environmental effects. Growing in popularity, plant-based milk substitutes are a relatively simple lifestyle change. But how much better are they for the environment?

Simply said, absolutely. Dairy cattle consume a lot of land, water, and resources and emit gases that have a negative impact on the environment. According to Annika Carlsson Kanyama, who specializes in sustainability studies at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, “it undoubtedly helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” As cheese requires a lot of milk to produce, she also advises switching to non-dairy varieties.

Nowadays, the majority of shops have a variety of milk substitutes, including beverages made from soy and almond milk as well as oat, rice, hemp, and other options. Does it matter which you choose, then? They all affect the environment differently, as they always do. Almonds, for instance, require a lot of water, whereas soy cultivation has aided in the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, causing biodiversity to be lost and harmful emissions to be produced (although a lot of this soya is grown for animal fodder). According to Carlsson Kanyama, the biggest concern with soy is whether it was grown on freshly deforested land, such in Brazil. Because so much carbon in the soil gets oxidized, there could be significant carbon dioxide emissions if it is cultivated there. If you purchase soy milk, Carlsson Kanyama advises investigating the source.

The distance that ingredients and goods must travel to get to you is another factor to take into account, according to Hanna Tuomisto, an associate professor of sustainable food systems at the University of Helsinki. Transportation also adds to emissions. I would strongly advise using oat milk as a substitute in Europe, she continues.

Should you simply adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Again, the answer is straightforward: yes, preferably vegan. Going vegetarian or vegan has many benefits, according to Carlsson Kanyama. “It saves energy, it saves greenhouse gas emissions, it saves land, it saves water, it avoids the usage of antibiotics.”

A diet based primarily on plants has a far lower environmental impact than one containing meat or dairy, according to a research this year that was published in the journal Science. According to main author Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford, “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest method to lessen your influence on planet Earth, not just greenhouse emissions but global acidification, eutrophication, land usage, and water consumption.”

You can still think about where your food comes from, according to Tuomisto. There are several pulses and legumes grown in Europe that can be integrated into a plant-based diet in addition to soybeans, which are primarily grown in the US.

Going “flexitarian,” or reducing your meat and dairy consumption rather than fully eliminating it, is a good alternative if giving up meat and dairy altogether seems like a significant change in lifestyle. Being a flexitarian, she adds, is a really responsible approach to manage your eating habits because “becoming vegan or vegetarian today is not such a major step as it has been in the past.”

She also consumes some fish and fish products since, depending on the species and method of capture, they may not have a negative influence on the ecosystem. When fish are plentiful and simple to catch, she says, “you don’t need to use a lot of fuel since it’s low-emitting.” Fish are particularly effective feed converters, which makes them different from meat. One kg of fish can be obtained with only a few kilos of feed.

Again, one of the most important things people can do to lessen their influence on the environment is to eliminate trash. One of the largest things you can do for the environment, according to Tuomisto, is to reduce food waste, as nearly a third of the food that people buy ends up in landfills. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, each year 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced for human consumption are wasted. It is obvious that producing food that isn’t even consumed is bad for the environment. You can be organized with your shopping list and just purchase what you need to help solve this issue. If you’re only going to eat a portion of the produce, don’t buy a large bag of it. Also, cook vegetables as soon as possible so you may still use it.