Ten simple ways to consume more consciously and reduce your environmental footprint.
I think it's fair to say that today, many of us in the West fail to realize just how connected we are to the land. In eras past and indeed in other areas around the world at present, people live on and directly from the land. The land isn't merely the backdrop of their lives, but a main character. But nowadays, the majority of us in the West buy our food from stores, with little knowledge of where it came from or how it got there. We wash stuff down the drain, and a big truck comes and takes our trash away every week, so we don't think much about where all our waste goes. But despite the illusion that we're removed from the land, we're really quite connected to it. All that stuff comes from somewhere and goes somewhere.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm no eco-expert. My exposure and sensitivity to environmental issues has exponentially increased over the past few years mainly as a result of my living in a marginalized community and having wonderful friends and, in particular, a rockstar flatmate who keep up with all these issues and have modeled conscious consumerism for me.
As a result, I've seen more closely the negative effects of our disconnected living. My little photo series and the exorbitant amount of rubbish in my neighborhood have thrust before me our consumer culture and made me reconsider my own relationship with nature. As I seek whole and healthy living with and alongside people here, I've become sensitive to how I might be complicit in enabling and perpetuating environmental injustice, thereby affecting my community or communities like it around the world.
Environmental degradation, climate change, and the like tend to affect the poor first. Not only are their livelihoods often tied to and dependent on the land, but their fragile existence will likely experience more immediately and profoundly the effects of changes in the environment - however subtle those changes may appear to us.
Caring for the environment means caring for people too.
As I said, I'm no eco-expert. I have so much to learn about consciously consuming and reducing my carbon footprint, or whatever. But here's ten little things I've learned, and I thought I'd share with you.
It's probably worth noting in all this that I guess I'm operating from two assumptions here: the earth is not an endless resource, and reducing our consumption and waste is a worthwhile endeavor.
Of course, there's a spectrum of environmentally sensitive living. You might read this list and feel it's so elementary [which it is]. Hopefully this can spur a conversation between us. What do you do? What are your priorities? What do you find good or hard about conscious consumerism and living in a way that's sensitive to the environment?
Or, you might read this list and feel you have quite the task ahead of you. These are meant to be small, simple, practical adjustments. You don't have to overhaul your whole life. Try making one adjustment for a month, and see how it goes. If you think you could manage a second, add it in the next month. To get started, you might have to put forth a little cash or research, but I think it's worth it.
Wherever you're at, I think we all have a part to play in caring for our earth and caring for our fellow humans.
1. Use re-usable shopping bags.
Walking the streets of Kenya and Tanzania some years ago, I was shocked at the number of plastic bags which dotted the streets. I remember helping pick up glass on a soccer field one afternoon, and pulling up plastic from deep below the surface. A few summers later I traveled to Rwanda, and at the border, the border control made us empty the contents of our suitcases and throw away any plastic bags before entering the country. This struck me as a little over the top, until I began walking the streets of Kigali. The impact was noticeable. The country was so much cleaner.
The rubbish dilemma in my neighborhood often brings back memories of the rubbish in Kenya and Tanzania. Bags and glass are buried deep below the surface in our local greenspace too. It makes me realize this is not just a "developing world issue"; we all need to care about this.
Many cities, counties, states, and countries have already initiated a shopping bag tax. And I think it's fantastic. It's so easy to buy a re-usable bag, and it helps keep unnecessary amounts of plastic from entering our lives and landfills. I keep my bag in the bottom of my purse and bust it out when I'm shopping. It took a while to get in the habit of remembering it, but it's almost second-nature now.
Of course, now and again I forget to bring my bag, so I buy a plastic one in the shop. And when that happens, I just tuck that away for future use.
2. Start recycling.
You may or may not already do this. Each city or region will have different recycling guidelines and rules. Check yours out and see what materials you can and can't recycle, and then take it seriously.
Consider using glass jars, half-used paper, or excess packaging for your own purposes. I love re-purposing jam jars as salad dressing containers, vases, candle holders, or drinking glasses. Half-used paper or printing disasters can become scratch paper or tomorrow's "to do" list.
3. Start composting.
Composting is an excellent way to save and re-purpose food scraps. I used to think it was disgusting and smelly, but it's actually pretty clean, containable, and manageable. Depending on your area, composting may be a little more difficult than recycling. Your city may pick up compost or its green waste pick up might include both food and garden waste.
However, not all cities or regions will have composting or green waste services. In that case, you could consider creating your own compost pile in your back yard. Or perhaps you have a gardening neighbor or friend or even a nearby community garden whose soil would enjoy a nutritious boost from your food scraps. Look into it, and be sure to follow their rules. Some services will accept any food scraps, while others will only accept raw, uncooked remains.
4. Use a smaller trash bin.
This may seem silly, but if you've eliminated plastic shopping bags, recyclables, and food scraps from the equation, you'll have significantly decreased the amount you're discarding. To help encourage that, you could invest in a smaller bin. If you're like me, you probably don't enjoy taking out the trash. Capitalize on this and see if somehow it might deter you from throwing away so much. Who knows? You might find you pause before putting more rubbish in your tiny bin and think, "Can I re-use this? Can I recycle this?"
5. Buy a re-usable water bottle.
I'll admit and say that this step is geared towards my fellow North Americans. For whatever reason, we seem to love bottled water. I recognize that in some regions, tap water tastes funny and rather than drink a cup of nasty tasting water, we'd prefer to grab and chug a plastic bottle of delicious, fresh spring water. But this results in a lot of plastic waste, which even if recycled, seems just unnecessary.
What about investing in a re-usable water bottle, and maybe even a water pitcher with a filter? You can keep the filter in the fridge and refill your bottle as and when you like. Depending on what kind of bottle you get, it'll probably be bigger than the average small, plastic bottle so you can drink more on the go.
6. Travel consciously.
Most forms of transport emit gases and pollutants, which have a negative impact on the environment. I'm not going to pretend to know the science about it, or argue with you about whether you believe climate change is real or not. Remember, I'm operating here from the assumptions that the earth is not an endless resource and that reducing our consumption and waste is a good thing.
Of course, most of our lives necessitate a bit of travel. I'm not suggesting that you do away with all forms of travel, but I wonder if there are small adjustments we can make to travel more consciously. What about carpooling with a colleague who lives nearby? Or how about walking or cycling to work [and building exercise into your daily commute]? What about taking public transport? If and when you relocate, what about considering the proximity your new home is to public transport or places you frequent? Rather than traveling by air, why not consider taking a train or a bus?
It's worth noting that air travel has a complex impact on the environment and may be worth researching more. Flying is often a luxury, which people on margins can't afford, despite the fact that they may experience the brunt of its effects. What about considering more local vacation spots? Or limiting your yearly flying? Or combining work and pleasure by incorporating a vacation into your travel for work? If you have to fly regularly, what about giving to an environmental charity to help offset your flight's carbon emissions? Check out A Rocha and Climate Stewards.
7. Eat local and seasonal.
Where does our food come from? How does it get to us? It can be easy to feel accustomed and perhaps even entitled to having what we want when we want it. But pineapples in Scotland in January come at a price - to me, yes, but perhaps more importantly, to the environment. Transporting food between regions uses up natural resources and emits unnecessary pollutants. Consider purchasing foods which are local and seasonal and therefore, have traveled less far. This is a great way to support local agriculture and community garden projects as well as your local economy!
8. Buy products that are environmentally friendly.
I'm only just tip-toeing into this realm. I currently use eco-friendly laundry detergent and dish soap, but I'm interested in learning about and using more eco-friendly cleaning and hygiene products. Companies like Ecover and Bio-D not only make products that go easy on the environment, have less perfumes, chemicals, and etc, but as companies, they are sensitive to their manufacturing's impact on the environment too. Now that's the kind of business I want to support! Our purchases have power.
9. Buy secondhand.
Moving on to clothes, appliances, furniture, and electronics, you might consider opting for secondhand items as a way of helping to reduce our wider society's waste. I think there's something to the whole "one man's trash is another's man's treasure" thing. Not only is this super affordable, but it cuts down on landfill waste and may even help begin to turn the tide in decreasing our society's manufacturing demands.
10. Enjoy the great outdoors!
When we aren't connected to our environment, I'd argue we are more oblivious to the obstacles it faces and to our impact on it. In my experience, the more I'm connected to and enjoying nature, the more I've begun to care about its well-being, and my own well-being! Take your dog for a walk. Go on a run with a friend. Enjoy a hike next weekend. Take up gardening. Appreciate and get to know the beauty around you. I think you'll discover it's not just the backdrop, but a main character to be engaged with and cared for.