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Earth Day 2013: 14 Surprising Things That Harm The Planet

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Earth Day is on Monday, April 22, 2013.
Earth Day is on Monday, April 22, 2013.

You might think you already know how to reduce your carbon footprint: walk or bike instead of driving, limit flights, recycle. And some of the little things, like turning off the light when you leave the room and bringing reusable bags when you go grocery shopping, are second nature by now. But there are many everyday choices you wouldn't think twice about that can really add up.

“The truth is everything we do over the course of our day has a hidden environmental impact, from the banana we snag at breakfast to the soap we wash our faces with at the end of the day," says journalist and author Adria Vasil (http://www.ecoholic.ca/) says. Vasil, the author of three eco-lifestyle books and a columnist for NOW Magazine (http://www.nowtoronto.com/columns/ecoholic.cfm), says that focusing on small changes can be encouraging. Even if you can't cut out business travel or trade in your gas guzzler for a hybrid, you can still make an impact with your everyday choices.

LOOK: 14 surprising everday choices that are harming the earth (and what you can do about it). Story continues below slideshow:

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14 'Little' Things That Are Harming The Earth
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If you're considering that potential impact for the first time, you're not alone. "I think the vast majority of people underestimate the impact of their daily choices on the environment," Vasil says. "It's just not something most of us have been raised to consider." Her own awakening came when her older brother developed chemical and environmental sensitivities when Vasil was in her teens, and she began to learn more about how our daily choices affect the world around us.

The good news about the big impact of those small choices? It means that you can make waves in a positive direction by changing them. And if we use what we learn to encourage our politicians to support large-scale changes, the effect is multiplied. "There are so many ways that small acts can help stave off major environmental crises," Vasil says, "even just with the stuff we put on, in, and around our bodies every day."

Using Disposable Chopsticks
Those chopsticks that come with your takeout have a negative environmental impact, whether they're made from plastic or wood. Plastic is oil-based and won't biodegrade in landfills, and the plastic used for flatwear like chopsticks is generally not recycled. Wooden chopsticks may be just as bad when you consider the millions of trees being cut down in China to supply the mind-boggling demand. Buy a nice pair of reusable chopsticks and use those instead!

Leaving Your Computer Monitor On
You may have heard that leaving your computer monitor on and letting it go into standby mode uses less energy than turning it off and on each day. But if you're going to be away from the computer for more than 20 minutes, it makes more sense to just turn the monitor off, according to Energy.gov. And remember, a screen saver uses energy too!

Using Bleached Coffee Filters
Coffee filters can go in the compost bin, grounds and all, so what's the harm in using them? It's considerable if you go with the bleached variety, as most are bleached with chlorine and contain dioxins, a known toxin. They're also more likely to be made with unrecycled paper. Go with brown paper filters made from recycled fibres, or get a reusable cloth, stainless steel, or gold filter.

Throwing Away Your Printer Cartridges
Refilling your printer cartridges saves money, but it's also easier on the environment. It's estimated that only five per cent of the 60 million inkjet cartridges sold in Canada every year are recycled, and it takes 2.5 ounces of non-renewable oil to make just one cartridge. You can help cut your share of that by refilling your cartridge, and many places that will load you up with new ink will also recycle your empty cartridges for you when you're done with them.

Flushing "Flushable" Applicators And Wipes
Just because you can flush something, doesn't mean you should. Applicators, tampons, and some wet wipes don't dissolve and disperse in water the way toilet paper does. Instead, they settle or clump up (thanks to tampon strings) and create blockages that could lead to harmful sewer leaks. Put them in the trash bin instead!

Eating Farmed Fish
Farmed fish may seem like the better environmental choice — isn't it smarter to avoid depleting ocean stocks by going with fish grown specifically for eating? Not necessarily. The pellets or other food the fish are given can contain antibiotics and other medications. What the fish don't eat just drops to the bottom and dissolves into the water. Also, algae can grow on fish farms and develop into red tide, which harms other species. If you eat seafood, look for fresh stocks that are not endangered. Ocean Wise has great info on the best fish choices to make when you go shopping.

Not Buying Shade-Grown Coffee
How was your coffee grown? If you don't know, you should probably find out, because the answer has a real green impact. Look for coffee that's shade grown, which means grown under a canopy of other plants, providing a home for birds that coffee grown on clear-cut plantations destroys. Shade-grown plants can also get away with fewer pesticides.

Indulging An Affection For Denim
Levi's itself admits that it takes about 3,000 litres of water to make just one pair of its jeans, and the average North American owns seven pairs. The beauty of denim is that it goes with everything, so stick to a couple of favourite styles and cut the excess. We'd bet you wear the same pair or two most of the time anyway! (As for Levi's, in 2011 they introduced jeans produced with less water.) "All sorts of things like clothing, electronics and meat are so much cheaper than they were 50 years ago," Vasil says, "so we buy more and more of it when we don't really need it and all of it has an impact on the environment."

Being A Beauty Product Junkie
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Census Bureau, more than three million tons of personal care products are dumped into waterways every year. Those that contain endocrine disruptors like parabens can affect reproduction in wildlife. Choosing products that avoid the Toxic Ten (http://environmentaldefence.ca/reports/just-beautiful-personal-care-products-pocket-shopping-guide) ingredients is better for you and for nature. "We can slow the wave of hormone disrupting chemicals that the UN warns are out there making humans and wildlife increasingly sick by using all natural, nontoxic, sustainable bodycare and cleaning products," Vasil says.

Going For The Soy Veggie Burger
Eating meat has an environmental impact, so shouldn't choosing soy alternatives be friendlier to Mother Earth? Turns out it depends on the kind of soy you're eating. Growing soy has a worse environmental impact than other plant-based protein crops like chickpeas, and a lot of the soy we eat is genetically modified and grown in China, where pesticide use may not be as well regulated as it is in North America and Europe. Look for non-GMO soy, and get your plant proteins from lentils and beans when you can.

Buying Bamboo Sheets
Bamboo has been touted as an eco-friendly alternative to woods and fabrics like cotton, hailed for its antibacterial properties and quick rate of growth. But it's not all as rosy as it seems. Pesticides can be used in its growth, and chemicals in processing it into fabric. And the increasing demand for the material could lead farmers to clear cut native vegetation in order to plant it. Bamboo still has a lot going for it—just make sure you check on its sourcing when purchasing it.

Thickening Sauces With Corn Starch
Corn starch works well as a thickener for sauces and gravies, but it is usually made with genetically modified corn. Many people are concerned about GMOs in our food supply, and there are also intellectual property concerns around ownership of genetically modified seeds. You can avoid the issue by using arrowroot powder instead. As a bonus, it has a more neutral flavour and can be used at low temperatures.

Buying Canned Vegetables
Using vegetables canned at their peak freshness can be a way to enjoy your favourite produce out of season, but most of them will be in cans lined with BPA. There are growing concerns about Bisphenol A's estrogenic properties, and it was recently found that most Canadians have BPA in their blood. Avoid it by using frozen veggies instead.

Eating Meat
A 2012 report from World Bank Group said that our best chance to avoid the effects of climate change down the road is to start eating less meat now. A former advisor to the group and another World Bank Group environmental specialist said that the 51 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and poultry. "We can all help the climate change crisis by slashing the amount of meat and animal products that we eat since meat animals are shockingly huge emitters of greenhouse gases," Vasil says.

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