It can feel overwhelming trying to be a friend to the environment, especially during the COVID pandemic. But change can happen! Let’s reduce plastic, lower emissions, recycle smarter, and live a more eco friendly life in 2021.
If you’re reading this then…check! You understand or are at least aware that climate change is an issue. According to the 2017 Climate Science Special Report sea levels are rising, heavy rainfall and heatwaves are becoming more frequent, and global temperatures continue to rise. We are currently operating at an unsustainable rate.
“There is broad consensus that the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts, some of which are potentially large and irreversible” (Wuebbels et al, 2017)
To begin to understand the full gravity of the situation, I recommend watching the following documentaries. Check out A Plastic Ocean, A Life on This Planet, Cowspiracy, Kiss the Ground, and I Am Greta just for starters.
Still not sure?
Well let’s face it…if you believe climate change is a big ol’ hoax and that none of this will come to fruition…then what’s the worst case scenario if you DID make some eco-positive changes? A cleaner world for future generations? Less plastic waste clogging our oceans? Fewer pollutants in the air we breathe? There is truly no downside to making environmentally conscious decisions, only consequences if we fail to change. Check out the EPA Carbon Calculator to see how small changes can reduce your household carbon footprint.
Let’s face it, change isn’t easy. Take that guy in the first photo below… just sippin’ wine through a straw from a cling wrapped wine glass… (insert facepalm emoji here). That man has come such a long way in such a short amount of time. How do I know? We’ve done it together! (yup that’s my husband). And I’m proud of what we have accomplished so far. We learned that small changes truly can make a larger impact. Just start somewhere (anywhere) and build from there. As my husband jokes “Yeah ‘being green’ started with eliminating straws and now we don’t eat meat!”
Though his statement is a mild exaggeration, we HAVE dramatically cut back on our meat intake. We don’t purchase meat anymore period and cook strictly plant based when at home, allowing for some leniency when we’re out with friends or family. My advice is to just try and tackle one area at a time. You don’t have to suddenly become 100% plastic free, strictly vegan, grow all your own food, or only shop second hand. Just start SOMEWHERE. The environment will thank you.
This was the area I was drawn to as my first opportunity for improvement. I couldn’t believe the amount of plastic that was infesting our waters and the animals that live there. If you haven’t watched ‘A Plastic Ocean‘ on Netflix – do! It will make you look differently at every bottle cap, plastic lighter, and single use PPE (personal protective equipment) that you “throw away”. How much plastic do you currently waste? Find out here: Plastic Calculator
How to shop without plastic
To begin, my husband and I simply stopped buying foods that are packaged in plastic. But what about sliced bread you ask? Chips? CHEESE?? Not the cheese!
Basically, I ended up purchasing more fresh, whole foods instead of buying their prepackaged counterparts. This actually became a great source of enjoyment as we started really cooking again instead of throwing a preprocessed frozen meal in the oven. Did this take more time? Yes. Did it take preplanning? Fo sho. Is our food tastier and healthier as a result? No doubt. Do I miss crunchy Cheetos? You bet. Even so, I just can’t justify adding one more plastic bag to our environment that will outlive me. And TBH those Cheetos just don’t taste as good when you consider the fate of it’s plastic packaging.
Many butcher shops, delis, bakeries, etc will allow you to bring your own bread bag and/or containers. Call ahead and ask! This took some getting used to, but after a few times it became second nature.
Plastic is sneaky
Plastics seem to be in EVERYTHING! They’re almost inescapable! Even the clothing we wear contains plastics (i.e. polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc.) that sheds in our wash and gets into our waterways. When possible, try to purchase clothing made from natural materials, even better if you purchase it second hand! Consider installing a microplastic filter to your washing machine or use a Guppy Friend to stop plastic runoff from entering our waterways.
Another easy swap is in the bathroom. Toilet paper and paper towels have so much plastic packaging! Check out Reel, Bippy, Tushy, or my personal favorite Who Gives a Crap. There are so many options with plastic free packaging. Better yet, simply use cloths instead of paper towels. If you want to push yourself even further down the zero waste path, consider a bidet in lieu (get it?…loo?) of toilet paper. Start there and one by one pick off the next bathroom, kitchen, or cleaning item and find a new plastic free solution! But by all means please use what you have first…being wasteful in an effort to rid your home of plastic is counter intuitive.
Plastic in the pandemic
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected our ability to stifle the use of single use plastics. With lockdowns in place and a reduction in travel, the demand for petroleum decreased dramatically. As a result, the production of virgin plastics became more and more cost effective. Not to mention the skyrocketing production of PPE, food takeout containers, and food packaging. Sadly, “Prioritization of human health over environmental health has led to the delay or reversal of policies aimed at reducing single use plastic” (Adyel, 2020).
It’s up to us to reverse this course. Use a cloth reusable mask when possible. Call the restaurant you plan to order dinner from and ask about plastic free packaging options. Use refill stations in your area where available or check out Loop and The Wally Shop for statewide shipping of zero waste pantry staples and self care items. Let’s demand more eco-friendly options from the companies that provide food, clothing, decor, and entertainment options.
So lets get real, this is probably the least popular topic. My husband and I are born and raised Midwest meat lovers. My siblings and I were brought up on chicken nuggets, fish sticks, burgers, and BBQ. (Nothing beats Kansas City BBQ amirite). However, the more I researched what it meant to be “green” the less I could ignore the vast environmental impacts of commercial farming.
“Land is being eroded and destroyed, water resources overdrawn, greenhouse gases over-emitted, and energy and grains unnecessarily diverted” (Katz-Rosene and Martin, 2020).
A 2014 study by Cambridge University found that “To produce 1 kg of protein from kidney beans required approximately eighteen times less land, ten times less water, nine times less fuel, twelve times less fertilizer and ten times less pesticide in comparison to producing 1 kg of protein from beef” (Sabate et al., 2014). They also found that beef contributed 5-6 times more manure than their chicken counterparts. So even if you’re not ready to go veggie full time, maybe consider swapping that hamburger for a chicken sandwich. “Pound for pound, gallon-for-gallon, animal-sourced foods use vastly more water and carbon to produce than plant-based foods” – Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD (UCLA Department of Sustainability)
Do it for your health
A 2020 meta analysis concluded that “In comparison to omnivorous diets, vegetarian diets are associated with clinically relevant positive outcomes on both total and LDL cholesterol and body weight. Subjects adhering to vegetarian diets have a significantly lower risk of diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and cancer, in comparison to omnivores.” (Oussalah et al., 2020) They did however report an increased occurrence of B12 deficiency in vegans and vegetarians so talk to your doctor about supplementing B12 if you abide by a vegetarian, vegan, or plant based diet. In general, always a good idea to talk to your doctor before making any significant dietary changes.
And if that’s STILL not enough, a 2010-2020 review of meat consumption noted that “consumption of meat – especially wild meat – is related to virus infections, as many viruses have been found in wild meat trade markets” (Gonzalez et al., 2020) Huh, sound familiar?
“…human activities, compounded by the increase in international mobility and weakened public health systems, created optimal conditions for the emergence and transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Decreased biodiversity, deforestation and ecosystem imbalance increase the likelihood of the emergence of an epidemic…” (Barouki et al., 2020)
This only scratches the surface of agriculture’s impact on the environment, our health, and animal welfare. Plenty more to come on the topic. In the meantime, a good way to start is with Meatless Mondays (or better yet have Meat Mondays and go without meat the rest of the week!). There are some wonderful cooking apps out there that can make the transition easier. I personally enjoy Mealime and Mealthy and put on their vegetarian/vegan filter.
This one is my favorite! The amount of “trash” that can be saved from the landfill will shock you. In fact, according to Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 30% of waste is food and debris that could be composted. This isn’t even taking into consideration organic textiles, wood, and paper materials. Check out their 2019 summary on composting here.
Repurpose organic matter
Fortunately, there are multiple ways to start composting, whether you live in an apartment or on an acreage. Because I’m spoiled (get it? spoiled? like food?)…anyway, because I’m spoiled here in Kansas City with companies like Compost Collective, Food Cycle KC, and KC Can Compost, composting was one of the first and easiest changes we made.
However, I understand that in the majority of our country, curbside compost programs are not available or may not be an affordable option. Some local farms do compost and are willing to accept residential compost waste – just ask! Search your local area for composting programs and/or research alternate ways to begin composting in your home. Worm farms sound cute right?
Food waste on the road
If you’re traveling, check out Share Waste to find individuals receiving compost scraps near your travel destination. And believe it or not we found a compost collection bin in the Atlanta airport! Many Whole Foods locations have compost bins as well. Change is happening and it’s great to see.
To this point, be sure to plan/pack your meals in advance in order to reduce food waste. This is another big issue and one worthy of a future dedicated post. Again, meal planning apps can be very helpful for this. One of my favorite books, Cooking with Scraps, can also help you make the most of your food (and your hard earned cash) by using every bit.
I kid you not I found a pair of Paige brand designer jeans at my local Savers thrift shop for $16. Those bad boys retail easily over $100 so I was stoked. Buying used or “pre-loved” is an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint. This can result in a decreased demand for new items that require more energy to produce (even if they are sustainably made).
There’s hardly any excuse not to buy used given the sheer number of stores, apps, and neighborhood sales at our fingertips. Subscribe to your local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group where members are encouraged to offer and accept items for free. Check out Facebook marketplace, OfferUp, Nextdoor, Craigslist, Ebay, Poshmark, The Real Real, etc. to find gently used or preowned items for sale.
This isn’t limited to textiles
Consider purchasing used furniture, housewares, and electronics. Certified refurbished products are an eco friendly option if you’re not comfortable purchasing used. Sadly, according to the EPA “An undetermined amount of used electronics is shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately”. So basically we’re dumping our E-waste onto people who don’t have the resources to handle it? Neat. This is not simply an environmental issue but a humanitarian issue at it’s core.
So, before you buy, get creative! Can you make it? Borrow it? Fix something you already own or repurpose it? After all, there’s a reason the first two R’s are Reduce and Reuse.
There are multiple ways to reduce our energy and resource consumption. And let’s face it, we’re all staying home more nowadays (thanks a lot COVID) and you may or may not have seen a corresponding spike in your electric, water, or gas bills. There are some pretty simple things that most everyone knows to do (though often forget to do) that can make a difference. The list is a bit long but here you go!
- Turn off lights in rooms not in use and/or use task lighting
- Open blinds and use natural light as much as possible! Treat yourself to a little boost of serotonin and Vitamin D
- Switch to LED lighting
- Unplug electronics when not in use. Even in “standby mode” many electronics continue to use energy. Power strips can help make this easier.
- Use a smart thermostat – we have a Honeywell app controlled thermostat and it’s a lifesaver!
- Before using your AC/heating unit, consider opening or closing blinds to assist with temperature control. You can also put on (or take off…wink wink) clothes to get more comfortable.
- In summer months, try to avoid using the oven as it heats up the kitchen. Instead try grilling/cooking outdoors
- Use smaller appliances where possible. A toaster, oven, crockpot, microwave, etc. will all use less energy than the oven.
- Use fans to help cool/warm you – high counterclockwise to cool and low clockwise to warm. Turn off when you’re not in the room
- Hang dry laundry and air dry dishes
- Change your AC filter on schedule – check out this great washable/reusable air filter: go AirThreads!
- Invest in energy star graded appliances
- Install solar panels
- Take short cold showers
- Install low flow shower heads
- Turn off the faucet when not in use (i.e. shaving, brushing teeth, washing hands)
- Use a rain barrel to collect rainwater for watering plants
- Reuse cooking water to water plants
- Do full loads of laundry and dishes
- Wash in cold water (uses less energy and today’s HE appliances work just as well with cold water)
- Use the dishwasher instead of washing by hand (yup! It actually uses LESS water)
- Add insulation to old water heaters (and turn them off if you’re going to be gone for a few days)
- Try walking, biking, or using public transport
- Consider an electric or hybrid car for your next vehicle
I know you’re probably thinking “yeah duh” so lets cover come helpful tips that I didn’t think about until doing some research:
- Consider getting an energy audit on your home. A lot of places will do this for free – call your local utility provider to find out!
- When traveling, evaluate your travel method of choice. Depending on your destination and the number of people traveling, the most eco-friendly option may not be what you think. For example, I used the Carbon Footprint Calculator (this is so cool) to see what my impact would be traveling round trip from Kansas City to Chicago. In this situation, the train was significantly better. This is not an exact science, obviously, as it may depend on the number of travelers (i.e. an empty train may end up being worse than a full flight). Regardless, this calculator is a useful tool for those who travel frequently.
|Flights||0.18 metric tons of CO2e|
|Car||0.30 metric tons of CO2e|
|Bus||0.17 metric tons of CO2e|
|Train||0.01 metric tons of CO2e (for long distance train)
0.06 metric tons of CO2e if considered a local or commuter train
In a perfect world we would all be zero waste but this can be difficult to achieve. Recycling is the third “R” as it should be a last resort for items we cannot reduce or reuse (well, second only to throwing things in the garbage). But we must learn how to recycle properly!
The recycling industry has been under scrutiny lately as it has become abundantly clear that plastic recycling isn’t what many of us were led to believe. How many times have you thought *shrug* well it’s recyclable so I don’t feel that bad about it? That happened frequently for me until I discovered the true lifecycle of “recyclable” materials.
Where do my recyclables go?
A little known fact – plastic actually degrades with each recycling run. They can only be put through this process once or twice before the properties degrade and are no longer usable. The following chart details plastic production and subsequent end-of-life outcomes. It makes me sad and sick…sick and sad. The amount of plastic in the landfill has skyrocketed in recent years. So yes you should always recycle your plastic but more importantly try and select items that have a higher likelihood of actually getting recycled!
So what are better options?
On a brighter note, glass and metals (including aluminum) can be recycled in-def-i-nite-ly. INDEFINITELY. Without loss of quality. Remind me why we’re using plastics again?? Paper is also a highly recyclable material and can be recycled 5-7 times successfully. After that, it can still be used for things like egg crates and other pulp paper products.
If curbside recycling isn’t available to you, consider collecting materials in your basement or garage and making a monthly visit to the recycling center. I understand this isn’t convenient or possible for everyone but get creative! Talk with neighbors, maybe create a rotation to take recyclables for one another. There are solutions if we care enough to find them.
What if I’m not sure if something is recyclable?
It’s important to avoid the trap of “wishcycling”. Many of us have fallen victim to this. It’s the thought in your head that says “Is this recyclable? Yeah, for sure it is. I mean I think so? The recycling center will figure it out…lets give it a go”. This can be problematic for many reasons. Recycling contamination is a real issue and can result in large quantities of recyclable items ending up in the landfill because they were mixed with too many non-recyclable materials. At the end of the day, keep foods, liquids, and plastic bags out of your recycling.
“Today, the average contamination rate among communities and businesses sits at around 25%. That means that roughly 1 in 4 items placed in a recycling container is actually not recyclable through curbside programs, and this creates enormous problems for the recycling economy.” (Bell, 2018)
Not sure if that item is recyclable? Or want to find where to take hard to recycle materials? Check out Recyclespot.org (in the Midwest) for a super comprehensive list. Terracycle also offers a vast number of programs for hard to recycle items. And though a bit pricey, you can invest in your own Zero Waste Box from Terracycle. In my opinion, it’s worth the investment.
Lead by example
The ripple effect is real friends. It may not feel like you’re doing much at first, but little by little you will notice the impact you have on those around you. My friends and family have become way more aware of their own wasteful habits the more I engage them conversation.
To that point, try not to attack or chastise those who are trying (or struggling) to improve. It’s easy to get angry, frustrated, or anxious when contemplating the challenges we face. ‘Why don’t they care!?’ I’ve asked myself. I’m learning that patience is key and everyone moves that their own pace. Provide positive encouragement and reinforce good decision making!
Donate some time to Mother Earth! Plant trees, support a local community garden, help set up a farmer’s market, or spend time at the local recycling center – the list goes on! For those in Kansas City, Bridging the Gap has wonderful opportunities for eco-friendly volunteer activities. Find ways to make a difference in your area!
When you notice opportunities for improvement, don’t let them slip by! Write letters/emails to companies, businesses, and politicians and push for change. Yes, you might get some automated PR reply but be persistent! A great place to start is your workplace – have you identified areas that your office or company could be more eco friendly? Request a conversation with management to discuss sustainability. They may be surprised to learn how many changes are actually cost effective!
Lastly, VOTE, run for office, or endorse a candidate. Pay attention to the issues in local, regional, state, and national elections. What are these people doing to make a difference? Do they believe climate change is an issue or is it low on their list of priorities? How are they engaging populations of varying backgrounds, races, and income levels? These are important considerations.
If you’re so inclined, run for office yourself! We can all make a difference but even more so with some political power. Check out The Sunrise Movement and find a hub near your area to get involved and promote legislative change.
All that being said…I am by no means 100% green 100% of the time. I am not entirely zero waste, or completely plastic free, or totally vegan (though cross my heart, I’m working on it). But to be honest, I don’t know that you have to be perfect in all areas in order to be considered an environmentalist.
I am absolutely trying my best and consistently raise the bar for what I/we can achieve. Another Green Idea is here to spread the word about new ideas, endeavors, and innovations intended to make this world a safer, cleaner, greener place to live. Find us on Instagram and Facebook. We look forward to getting to know you!