Trigger Word: Sustainability. Is it even doable?

In my post a few weeks ago on the “zero waste movement,” I shared my anxiety and general disapproval of the term “zero waste” and why it should be renamed something seemly more attainable, such as “low waste living,” or “eco-living.” I described the movement as an attempt to reduce our environmental impact (particularly when it comes to single use plastics) and stimulate a circular economy through reusing/repurposing our stuff.

Now I want to take a step back and consider the fact that “zero waste” is such a small subsection of the larger “sustainability” movement. This overarching movement moves beyond simply reducing your waste, instead thinking about all the ways in which you can reduce your environmental impact. To think about ALL the ways you are being potentially unsustainable may seem daunting, but I actually think its more liberating; When you start thinking about sustainability as a whole, you increase your options, and even if you only do one thing that’s more sustainable, that’s one more thing that’s more sustainable!

It’s unrealistic to think that we will all live a strict “zero waste” lifestyle, or be eco-minimalists, but maybe some of us can reduce our water consumption, or we can start a garden, or we can donate to an environmental non-profit. Every little bit counts and if we all chip in just a little bit, we can move the needle one inch at a time.

What can we do? …REALISTICALLY

Perhaps the thing that frustrates me the most about the “zero waste” movement is the idea that in order to make a real and meaningful impact you need to completely change your lifestyle. First of all, change can be a slow and painful process that takes time and patience, so to suggest that we should all go from being the most meat eating civilization in history to being completely vegan overnight is slightly absurd (also, did we think about all the small farmers and small business that would be affected by such a change?).

My own personal sustainability journey is taking on a Buddha-centric approach of the Middle Way. The middle way teaches us to neither indulge nor deprive ourself of all our desires. While I’d love to jump right into doing everything in a sustainable and environmentally conscious manner, I know that’s not the most sustainable route—see what I did there 😉

BABY STEPS

Let’s all take babysteps towards a more sustainable future. There are so many small changes we can gradually make for a greener tomorrow, here’s a list of micro-changes you can implement with varying levels of ease;

  1. Changing your laundry habits– According to a report from Business for Social Responsibility, 40-80% of our clothes’ greenhouse gas emissions come from our laundering (aka washing and drying our clothes). They also noted our over-washing and drying, exacerbating the problem. Choice, a consumer advocacy group in Australia, found that 90% of the energy used during washing is for heating the water. Inside of mindlessly throwing your clothes in the wash after one use, check to see if your clothes are actually soiled (stinky, stained, dirtied) Also, try using the “eco-setting” if your machine has one, and always make sure to set your machine to cold wash (according to Choice, cold wash will work just fine unless your clothes are really, really filthy).
  1. Become a Conscious Consumer Become an Eco-minimalist Conscious Consumer– Conscious consumerism is the idea of buying products that align with your beliefs. In this case, buying products from environmentally responsible companies. In my personal opinion, this is a great way to A. put your money where your mouth is, and B. promote sustainability to your friends and family (because when you chose to buy and consume a particular brand, you become a walking advertisement for that brand). On the other hand, some environmentalist believe conscious consumerism is an excuse to buy more stuff and avoid addressing the systematic changes that should occur for a greener tomorrow. A Quartz.com article by Alden Wicker titled, “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world” breaks down this argument. I tend to agree with Wicker, and think that ultimately cutting down on the things we buy is a better alternative, yet, I still think there is some merit to conscious consumerism, especially for the things you need to buy, like toilet paper, soap, deodorant, food, etc. The goal is to cut down on unnecessary purchases and make the best environmentally conscious needed purchases.
  1. Compost your food waste– Compost is organic materials (i.e things that were once alive, such as leaves, twigs, food scraps, paper, etc) that decompose to become a mulch/soil like substance that can be used to fertilize gardens or just spread in your background as dirt. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), organic materials make up almost a 1/3 of waste sent to landfills. With that said, if everyone practiced composting, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in landfills significantly. Depending on where you live, composting is one of those things that can be really easy or really difficult; where I live, there are several composting programs, both free and fee for service. Alternatively, you can compost in your backyard or invest in an automatic indoor composter.
  1. Offset your carbon footprint– Carbon Offsetting is the act of calculating how much CO2 your activities have emitted and paying a company the equivalent to invest in environmental initiatives, such as clean energy or planting trees. Granted, the whole “offsetting” scheme is another controversial solution amongst environmentalist, but depending on what company you go with, you could also be helping improve the lives of people in developing countries or poorer areas. The Guardian has a great piece in Carbon Offsetting that helps explain the pros and cons.
  1. Carry your reusable bags in your backpack/purse/messenger bag- At this point, many people know about using reusable shopping bags, and many of us have reusable bags….at home. My biggest problem was not having the bags when I needed them! Now I carry one or two mesh reusable bags that fold into a small ball with me all the time. This is especially useful when I am not grocery shopping but stop in to pick up a few things on my way home from work or a similar situation.

Take it up a notch!

If you are feeling inspired and what to do more, you can always take Wicker’s advice and call your local government to action, reach out to your local grocery store to request more sustainable options, volunteer for an environmental organization or non-profit, or donate to an environmental cause. There are so many levels of engagement and so many ways to make a difference.

Bottom Line

None of the above suggestions are necessarily difficult or life altering, and yet, if everyone in the world adopted just one of those, it would have a significant impact on the environment and, more importantly, on shifting our mindsets towards greener habits. At the end of the day there is ALOT of confusion and debate on the “right’ solution to our sustainability problem, and just like everything else in life, there are no right answers. Everyone who is aware, able, and interested in making a different is doing what they can, whether that be composting, calling their local government to action, consuming less, carbon offsetting, you name it. It’s never about how much you can do on your own, it’s about what we can do together.

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