Top Contributors to the Average American’s Carbon Footprint

Top Contributors Average American's Carbon Footprint RePrint Tracker App

Breakdown of the Average American’s Carbon Footprint

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the term “carbon footprint” but you might not know what it means. Simply put, a carbon footprint is a simple way to measure the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions each person, company, or event is responsible for. 

There are a lot of factors that go into your carbon footprint. Everything from how you heat your home to how you get to work can have a major impact. And there are a lot of other things that you may not even be considering, like the clothes you wear or the food you eat. 

The average American’s carbon footprint is around 50,000 pounds* of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e) per year, and yours may be higher or lower depending on your lifestyle choices. Here, we’ll be discussing the “average American,” basing all of our data on national averages. Your personal carbon footprint and the factors that contribute to it may vary considerably. (*Some sources say the average American’s footprint is 44,000 pounds of CO2e per year. For this post, we are using 50,000 as the average, however we use 44,000 as the average in RePrint’s footprint tracker app). 

34% of the Average American’s Carbon Footprint Is Attributable to Government Services

When we think of our carbon footprints, most of us consider the things we, personally, do every day. But a little more than a third of your footprint likely comes from the things the government does on your behalf. 

A professor (and his class) at MIT recently calculated that the government has an 8.5-ton carbon footprint. (That’s a lot of CO2!) When you convert tons to pounds, the per person share of government services equals about 17,000 LBS CO2e, which is about 34% of 50,000.

This number takes into account all sorts of government functions, like police, roads, the US military, even things like your local library or the county courthouse. Since these sorts of government functions vary widely from place to place across our country, the number is likely to be much higher or much lower in some areas. 

This is why it’s important to hold our government accountable for the ways it uses our natural resources. Working toward cleaner power sources like solar and wind or smarter mass transit options that create less pollution could make a big difference. 

33% of the Average American’s Carbon Footprint Is Attributable to Home Energy

The next biggest contributor to the average American’s footprint is our home energy use. According to the EPA, we each use (on average) 11,764 kWh of electricity, 37,517 cubic feet of natural gas, 45.8 gallons of liquid petroleum, and 29.1 gallons of fuel oil. Together, this adds up to about 16,700 LBS for home energy, which is about 33% of 50,000.

The good news is, you have very direct and simple ways to lighten this part of your load. Things like upgrading to more energy-efficient appliances when it’s time to replace your old water heater or air conditioner can help a lot. 

There are smaller things you can do to help too. Turn off the lights as you leave a room. Set your A/C a few degrees warmer or your heater a few degrees cooler. Unplug those energy vampires sucking up your home’s power. Replace old bulbs with LEDs. Hang dry laundry and use your washer and dryer more efficiently (and less often). Replace filters and clean out vents regularly. You’ll be surprised to see how it can all add up. And in addition to helping the planet, you’ll be saving on your electric bill too!

16% of the Average American’s Carbon Footprint Is Attributable to Transportation

Assuming one gas-powered vehicle per teen or adult in the average American household, the next biggest number is transportation. We emit about 8000 LBS per year for each gas vehicle, which is about 16% of 50,000. The good news is, this is also an easy category for us to influence. 

To reduce your transportation emissions, there are a number of things you can do. The first and easiest step is to drive less. Walk or bike when possible. Carpool or take public transit when you have to go farther distances. Combine errands so that you don’t have to make separate trips for each item on your to-do list. And don’t let your car idle for long periods — shut it off when possible. 

Next, consider switching to a more fuel-efficient vehicle. If you live in an area where you need a car to get around, consider shopping for an electric or hybrid vehicle next time you trade up. If you’re using an electric vehicle, be careful of how you charge it. Powering your car by renewable energy like solar power is the most eco-friendly option if you have to drive. 

Finally, if you’re big on travel, make an effort to fly less. Long haul flights burn an incredible amount of fossil fuels. Consider having that meeting via video conference instead of flying to the opposite coast. If you tend to travel for trade shows constantly, look for closer events or consider skipping a few this year. If you do travel, look for greener travel options to help reduce your emissions.

5% of the Average American’s Carbon Footprint Is Attributable to Food

We’re now beginning to understand how much what we put in our mouths can impact our world as a whole. Assuming the average American is a meat and animal product eater, who is not concerned with purchasing locally-produced food products, about 5% of our annual footprint comes from the food we eat

Our food supplies involve a lot of steps that can each impact our planet. From the land and resources spent in producing the food to the fuel used to transport it to our local stores, you may not even be aware of how big of an impact that cheeseburger can have. Fortunately, there are some great ways to soften the blow. 

Consider going vegan for just one meal a day or a few days a week. Using less meat and animal by-products like dairy or eggs can be tremendously beneficial, and easier on your wallet too. Shop local whenever you can. Your local farmer’s market is a great place to get the freshest fruits and veggies around – they’re good for your health and the planet’s too since they’ve not been shipped in from across the country or around the world. 

12% of the Average American’s Carbon Footprint Is Attributable to Shopping, Waste, and Other 

This is somewhat of a catch-all, but most of the rest of the average American’s footprint comes from shopping, waste, and non-food consumption. It’s true – we live in a consumer-driven society. It seems like the message everywhere we turn is buy, buy, buy. This creates an immense amount of waste and uses up vital resources. But what can we do? Aim for less waste and less consumption for one.

Did you know that about 40% of the food supply here in the states is wasted? Yes, that big bag of apples may seem like a great deal compared with buying one or two individuals, but if you’re not going to eat them before they spoil, maybe pass them on to someone who will. Consider the sheer amount of packaging you throw out each year. And of course, recycle or compost as much of your waste as you possibly can.

When shopping, consider buying used or vintage items when you can. If you’re buying new, go for a higher quality product that will last much longer and need to be replaced less frequently. Switch to reusable products instead of disposable ones whenever possible. Consider buying items made from renewable resources, like bamboo, instead of plastic. Shopping online? Skip the rushed shipping whenever possible. Slower shipping methods dump far less emissions into our air. And remember that shipping via USPS is a greener option than FedEx or UPS. 

It seems like a lot to take in, doesn’t it? Whatever you do, don’t get overwhelmed and throw in the towel. The important part is to get started. You don’t have to do everything on this list right away, and you don’t have to do any of it perfectly. Small changes that become part of our daily routines, when compounded over time, can be incredibly effective. If we all start building eco-friendly habits, one step at a time, we’ll make a big difference together. 

To better understand CO2 emissions generated by various activities and how to offset them, see our carbon emissions calculator.