How big is your family's carbon footprint?

Teaching Your Child

Teaching Your Child


Twice within the last week I have come upon the term "carbon footprint." From the context of each passage, I was able to determine that this has something to do with the environment.

Previously, I had never heard those two words together.

I started feeling out of the loop, similar to the feeling I get around 20-somethings who have all the latest technological gadgets and a lingo to go with them.

It's hard to keep up. I must be getting old, and I'm hanging on to my dial-up Internet service to prove it.

Actually, I had the feeling that this term is something I should know, so I took the safe route.

I asked my seventh-grader if he was familiar with the term. It was somewhat comforting when he told me he wasn't.


So our quest began.

Whenever we encounter an unfamiliar term, we use it as a teaching moment. As my children mature, these teaching moments tend to be more for my sake than theirs, but that's OK. I've been accused of being a lifelong learner, a title I'll gladly accept.

According to Kids Discover magazine, a carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of a person's actions. This excess carbon dioxide traps the heat of the Sun, and can contribute to global warming. Global warming can cause droughts, floods, habitat loss and a rise in sea level, according to the magazine's latest edition on conservation.

But what does that mean to me?

It means I should think about the choices I make. If I eat an item with a container or wrapper - such as a candy bar - there's waste. If I eat an item without a wrapper - an apple, for example - there is essentially no waste. The energy used to create the item in the wrapper was greater than the energy used to create the item with no wrapper. Less energy, less carbon dioxide. (Plus, in the case of the apple, trees release oxygen. Raw products are the best choice for our consumption, both for environmental and health reasons.)

A carbon footprint goes beyond our choices at the table, but how can we measure the impact of our choices?

The Nature Conservancy,, offers an online carbon footprint calculator to determine how many tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our choices create each year.

I answered the calculator's test questions:

1. There are ____ people are in my household. (Four)

2. Calculate for me only or calculate for my household. (Household)

3. We live in a _____. (single family home; detached)

4. With _____ bedrooms. (Four)

5. Select state. (Maryland)

At this point the calculator showed that our estimated household impact, based on U.S. state averages, is 43 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.


Then certain reductions are taken and additions made, based on the choices we've made inside our home.

6. We've taken steps to heat and cool our home efficiently. (Wherever possible)

7. We have installed efficient lighting. (Everywhere possible)

8. We use Energy Star appliances and electronics and unplug equipment not in use. (Always)

9. We have taken steps to reduce energy used for hot water. (As much as possible)

10. We drive the following vehicles _____ miles per year. (Three vehicles, about 2,050 miles per year)

11. We generally check the air filter ______. (Occasionally)

12. We check the tire pressure _______. (Occasionally)

13. The total number of flights we have flown in the last year, counting each flight taken by each household member _____. (Five long flights)

14. We include meat in our diet _____. (At most meals)

15. We eat organic food ____. (Sometimes)

16. We recycle _____. (All materials locally recyclable)

17. We compost food scraps and yard trimmings ______. (Rarely)

Our results showed that our estimated greenhouse gas emissions is 64 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, which is below the U.S. national average.

I'm sure there's more we could do, and the Web site offers suggestions. Even if each of us takes one step toward conservation, we can make a difference.

Sometimes it helps to simply be aware of the choices we make.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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