We’re 27 days into the new year. Whether or not you have made (or started) your new year’s resolutions, it’s never too late to add another. I’ve spent time sifting through scientific papers, research articles, and sustainability blogs all over the internet to offer you reasoning and resources for talking to your friends, neighbors, and baristas. Whether you make a change this afternoon, wait until next week, or remember this article two months from now and decide to try again, every action matters.
First thing’s first:
Check your impact.
The reality: as a population, we are actually using more resources than our single Earth can sustain. There’s even a tool called the Footprint Calculator that you can use to calculate the number of Earth’s that we would need to support humans if everyone was living like you (my result was 3.2 Earths). I encourage you to participate! Everyone could use a reality check and it may even inspire you to start making some changes.
Skip the wrapping paper.
While some gift wrap can be recycled or is made from recycled materials, many kinds are coated with a thin layer of plastic, which means it cannot be recycled. Switching to decorative boxes that don’t require wrapping is a great way to save time, money, and resources.
Support your local car wash.
We may not think of it at first, but washing cars in our driveways is incredibly harmful for the environment. An average person uses between 80 and 140 gallons of water to wash their car at home, compared to an average of less than 45 gallons at a commercial car wash. It’s not just the amount of water that is being used, but where all that dirty water is going.
Car washing detergents contain chemicals like phosphates that run off of your durable driveway and into local bodies of water via storm drains. In a commercial car wash, federal law mandates that all of that dirty, soapy water gets drained into the sewers and treated at your local wastewater treatment plant before it is released.
Need to save a few bucks by washing yourself? Try using a biodegradable car washing soap to lessen the effects on the environment.
Eat less meat.
Listen, carnivores: I know this is a tough one, but eating less meat is one of the biggest positive impacts you can have on our environment. A paper published in Science in June 2018 found that of all the world’s agricultural land, animal farming takes up 83%, while only providing 18% of our calories, meaning it is incredibly inefficient for how much land animals take up. In Brazil, cattle ranching accounts for 80% of Amazon deforestation, around 450,000 square kilometers, twice as much area as Minnesota.
In 2015, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that if every American cut back by just a quarter pound of beef every week, there would be an enormous reduction in greenhouse gases—the same amount as eliminating 4 to 6 million cars.
Taking care of animals like cattle (plus their pasture land) and processing meat also uses boatloads of water. In the United States, 2,500 cubic meters of water per person is used for meat production every year. That’s more than an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water for every person in the U.S., just devoted to producing meat.
Even choosing to eat less of certain kinds of meat is making a sustainable choice. One of the most important ways to shop at the grocery store is to learn where your meat comes from. Support local farmers with sustainable practices; the product is also traveling less distance to your store, which means fewer greenhouse gases emitted in transportation.
There are health reasons to choose certain meat, too: beef that comes from grass-fed cattle contains more than twice the Omega-3 fatty acids than cows that are fed grain, due to these fatty acids in green grass and clovers.
Have I piqued your interest? Check out more interesting infographics that detail all of the costs of eating meat.
Watch your seafood.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an awesome resource called Seafood Watch. Readers can determine which fish are safe and the most sustainable to eat, learn about the impacts of fish farming and wild-caught fishing, and even find sustainable recipes. There’s even a Seafood Watch app available for download on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Buy locally grown produce.
When you shop at farmers’ markets, you are not only supporting your local community, but you are helping the planet, too! From the soil to your pantry, produce travels an average of 1,000 miles to its final destination, compared with the 200 mile or even 50 mile limit set by farmers’ markets.
Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season in your area saves time, money, and carbon emissions from transport, refrigeration, and unnecessary packaging. Many farmers also sell organic or pesticide-free products, use soil health applications, and educate their customers on sustainable farming practices.
Buy (and use) your reusable coffee cup.
Let’s take a look at just one contributing factor of the coffee cup industry: Starbucks. It is estimated that 8,000 Starbucks cups are used every minute, leading to over 4 billion cups per year. That’s 1.6 billion trees just for paper, single-use cups. The catch is, because these cups are lined with plastic, they are not recyclable.
Forget your reusable tumbler at home? All Starbucks and Caribou Coffee locations have ceramic cups on hand that you can ask to use instead.
Carry reusable straws and silverware.
Every year, 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans (that’s as much weight as the Pyramid of Giza). Heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch? Take a closer look if you haven’t. The graphic below was created by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, as well as researchers in New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, Britain, and the United States, which depicts an area roughly the size of France where ocean currents are pooling plastics together.
Okay, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Think the problem seems far away? It’s estimated that nearly 10,000 tons of plastic end up in the Great Lakes every year. A recent study published in spring of 2018 found that there are even microplastics showing up in tap water and beer brewed with Great Lakes water.
I’d need extra fingers and toes to count the number of times a spare spoon, fork, or straw has saved one-time plastic from entering the landfills. My favorite is To-Go Ware, which also sells stainless steel food containers. Every straw, spoon, or plate saved makes a difference.
Stop using plastic bags.
A plastic bag can take anywhere from 10-1000 years to decompose. As of September 2018, two states and more than 150 other cities, towns, and counties have banned plastic bags in the United States, as well as 67 countries worldwide.
WIt takes practice to remember your reusable bags every time you go grocery shopping, (but leaving reusable bags in your car or keep a compact bag in your purse or backpack can help you remember them.
Recycle, recycle, recycle.
The power of recycling cannot be understated. A new study by Yale published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that in the United States, we sent 262 million pounds of municipal waste into landfills in 2012 alone. As all of that garbage is decomposing in our trash heaps, it’s releasing greenhouse gas, specifically methane.
Greenhouse gases sit in our atmosphere and trap heat from the sun, raising our global average temperature over time. Carbon dioxide and methane are both examples of greenhouse gases, but methane is 25 times more effective at trapping the sun’s radiation in our atmosphere.
Right now, the United States recycles less than 22% of its waste. If we could reach 75% as a country, the impact would be similar to removing 55 million cars from the road.
If that isn’t reason enough to start rinsing out your yogurt containers, a 2016 update to the Environmental Protection Agency’s national Recycling Economic Information study found that in one year, 757,000 jobs and $36.6 billion in wages were attributed to recycling.
Transforming your lifestyle
Living in Denali has had an enormous impact on how I am living my own life. Subaru of America recently became a zero waste company, which means that when it creates cars, there is no waste going into the landfill.
“We have sent nothing to a landfill since May 4, 2004. I like to tell people if they go to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, once they throw away that cup, they’ve put more into a landfill than we have in the last 13 years.”Tom Easterday, senior executive vice president of the Subaru Indiana plant
Subaru has partnered up with the National Park Service in three different parks—Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Denali—to see if a national park can also achieve zero waste. There is an enormous sustainable culture exploding in Denali because of it, and I would love nothing more than to see its effects radiate outward into your homes.
Changing the way we operate our daily lives isn’t easy. It can be uncomfortable and challenging, but together we can make a difference. I hope that this article has inspired you to make even one small change, and to share that new change with someone else in your life. If we continue to inspire and teach those around us, we can have an enormous impact on our small planet.
If you’d like to learn more about the Zero Landfill Initiative in Denali, check out this amazing video by the Alaska Channel.