Everyone is familiar with the 3 Rs of waste management: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. But according to zero-waste advocate and author Bea Johnson, the first R on the hierarchy is actually refuse. In particular, refuse anything that will likely end up in the garbage bin after one-time use: plastic bags, bottled water, cups, straws, and cutlery, among others.
For instance, if you’re ordering take-out or having food delivered to your home, remember to tell the server to leave out plastic cutlery from your food bag.
Refusing single-use packaging usually goes hand-in-hand with bringing your own reusable containers as well as going to bulk stores and plastic-free shops.
Streamline Your Wardrobe
Along with going zero or less waste, another growing eco-friendly movement is minimalism. Created as the antithesis to mindless consumerism and excess, the minimalist movement advocates for a “less is more” approach, encompassing everyday choices we make such as the food we eat, the things we buy, even the clothes we wear.
“Fast fashion” is the term given to cheap, mass-produced clothing. It negatively impacts not only those who make them (usually sweatshops in developing countries) but the environment as well. According to a UN Environment report, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned or ends up in a landfill every second.
Additionally, the fashion industry consumes tremendous amounts of water (producing 20 percent of the world’s wastewater) and contributes significantly to ocean pollution: each year, 500,000 tons of microfiber wash out into our oceans from washing.
One way you can start adopting a minimalist lifestyle is by decluttering and minimizing your wardrobe. Joshua Becker of the Becoming Minimalist blog shares a few tips to paring down your closet size:
- Wear fewer colors
- Keep only one of each article of clothing (e.g., a tie, a winter coat, a pair of shoes)
- Donate, sell, or recycle clothes that you no longer wear
- Choose quality over quantity
- Avoid buying clothes because they’re on sale (and not because you absolutely need them)
Ever notice how much paper accumulates in your desk in just a few weeks? According to Environment Paper Network’s 2018 State of the Global Paper Industry Report, the average North American uses 215 kgs. of paper every year while global consumption of paper is at an average of 300 million tons annually. The EPA estimates that only around 60 percent of paper products are recycled; the rest end up in landfills, where it emits methane as it degrades.
Whether you’re planning to do it at home or at work, going paperless is unarguably better for the environment. Here are some ideas to reduce your paper trail:
- Instead of a memo pad, use the Notes app on your smartphone.
- Opt to get your cable, utility and credit card statements sent to your e-mail.
- Unsubscribe from junk mail and catalogs. Sign up for e-newsletters instead.
- Instead of subscribing to print media (newspapers, magazines, journals), consider getting the digitized version. Similarly, read e-books in place of paperback.
- If printing on paper is unavoidable, reduce paper use by printing on both sides and reducing text font size and spacing.
This philosophy extends even to the kitchen and bathroom. Instead of buying rolls of toilet paper and wads of paper towels, consider using reusable towels, rags, and hankies instead.
Adopt a Plant-Based Diet
You probably already know that agriculture, in particular livestock production, is one of the leading contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. Aside from the fact that raising livestock for meat and dairy production consumes vast water and land resources, it is also a large contributor of methane in the atmosphere, a pollutant whose effects include raising ocean temperatures.
That said, cutting out meat and dairy from your diet could reduce your carbon footprint by as much as 73%, a University of Oxford study concluded.
Interestingly, according to the same study, seemingly eco-friendly alternatives like grass-fed beef and freshwater fish farming still have a considerable impact on the environment compared to eating a mostly plant-based diet. So even if you can’t cut out meat from your diet entirely, just reducing your meat intake can make a significant difference in the long run. As an added bonus, a plant-based diet is better for your health too.
Avoid Wasting Food
While we’re on the subject of food, let’s talk about how much of it we waste. Each year 1.3 billion tons of food produced goes unconsumed and ends up being thrown out. In developed countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, consumers produce between 30 and 40 percent of food waste. If the carbon footprint of all the world’s food wastes were to be measured, it would translate to 3.3 billion tons’ worth of carbon emissions.
As consumers, there are several ways we can avoid food waste:
- Eat and prepare smaller portions. This ensures that you keep your leftovers and potential food wastes to a minimum.
- Buy only what you intend to eat. Plan your weekly meals and make a list of things to buy before heading to the grocers to avoid overbuying or unnecessary impulse purchases.
- Compost your food waste. This keeps your food from ending up in landfills, where it potentially generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
- Periodically make an inventory of your fridge or pantry and donate unused (but still perfectly edible) food items to charity or a soup kitchen. The goal here is to minimize the amount of food you throw out.
Having your own car is convenient, but it isn’t good for the environment. Studies show that the average car with a 3-liter engine releases 11,100 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which, along with emissions coming from trucks, contributes to one-fifth of the United States’ total global warming pollution. That doesn’t include other pollutants that come from cars—carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and hydrocarbon, among others—that are harmful not only to the atmosphere but to human health as well.
While there are hybrid and electric cars out in the market that have a smaller environmental footprint, it’s still best to try to keep your car use to a minimum. If possible, look for other means to get from point A to point B. Going to work? Take public transport or carpool with coworker. Better yet, ditch the four wheels and pedal or walk to work. It runs on sweat and gives you a great cardio workout too.
It has been predicted that the next major world war will be fought over clean water. While that seems like a scary (albeit real) prospect, there are steps you can take now to ensure that you aren’t contributing to water waste:
- Don’t leave the tap running when you’re brushing your teeth, shaving, washing your hands or the dishes.
- Follow the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” rule—that is, keep flushing (a notorious water waster) to a minimum and only when it’s necessary.
- Re-use water—water used to wash fruits and vegetables can be stored and subsequently used to water the plants in your garden.
- Take shorter showers—5 minutes or less is ideal.
- Wash dishes and clothes at full load.
- Consider installing a rain barrel at home. You can then use the rainwater collected to water your plants.
- Periodically check your pipes, faucets, and fittings for leaks—a leaky faucet can waste almost 20 gallons of water daily.
Do you know that even if you turn off your TV or computer without unplugging it, it is still consuming energy? Electrical power used up by plugged-in appliances that are not in use is called vampire power or ghost load. Think about it: when your TV is turned off, it’s actually still using up power via that tiny red light indicating that your TV is indeed not in use. It may be just a tiny amount (around .25 watts), but if you multiply that by the number of hours in a day you leave those things on “standby” mode, that can still add up in terms of energy costs over time.
While it may seem like a hassle to unplug all your devices each time you’re done using them, consider doing it when you’re going out for the weekend or on a holiday.
Be a Smart Shopper
According to researchers, consumers have a massive impact on the environment, and are responsible for generating 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 80 percent global water use.
Here are some ways you can tweak your spending habits to make sure you’re keeping your environmental impact to a minimum:
- Bring your own bag when shopping.
- As much as possible, buy from your local farmer’s market. There’s less plastic packaging, and you’re buying from nearby communities too.
- Buy produce that’s in season.
- Buy in bulk, and ideally from plastic-free shops.
- Dine in rather than buy takeout. If you have to, bring reusable containers to pack your food.
- Shop online. While it may sound counterintuitive, a Carnegie Mellon research suggests that buying online consumes lesser energy (compared to buying from a brick-and-mortar store), if you factor in customer transportation and the energy it takes to run a retail store.
“Sharing is caring,” as they say. Keeping yourself updated on the state of the environment and how to help it is good, but sharing and raising awareness on the things that matter to you is even better, and could eventually start a chain reaction of change.
A good place to start? Share this post on your social media to encourage someone to make small changes to their everyday habits too.
The Final Word
Can our daily actions really make an impact on the environment? It may be tempting to get discouraged when we try so hard to reduce our waste, yet see a neighbor make a mountain of it, or try to keep our water consumption to a minimum yet witness so many others wasting it mindlessly. But Zero Waste Chef Anne-Marie Bonneau sums it up beautifully: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” And that’s a good principle to keep in mind when you’re trying to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.