10 Ways to Help the Earth Live Its Best Life
Last year, Earth Overshoot Day occurred on August 1st, 2018. Earth Overshoot Day was the date on which humans used up all of the resources that the planet Earth can sustainably replenish for the year. In other words, the demand for commodities like food, water, and oil outpaced global supply. This event may seem very overwhelming and depressing but, luckily for us, we have been graced with a new year and we have the opportunity to become a part of the solution.
While Millennials & members of Generation Z have their significant differences, one common similarity that we share is our purpose-driven lifestyles. Julenne Tapia coined the term “prosumers” to describe Millennials and Generation Z, meaning we like to inform ourselves about our purchases, and with that information comes the inability to deny that we have an impact (1). It is harder for our generations to ignore the overwhelming impact that we have on our planet within the context of social media and globalization. We are under constant pressure to achieve and leave a positive impact and I am pleased to say that, in terms of this discussion, there are a lot of easy solutions.
To address this Earth Overshoot Day dilemma in 2019, we need to address our plastic consumption and usage. Approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year is thrown away by the average American and over time, that adds up, considering that plastic takes over 500 years to degrade (2). Plastic is everywhere and every piece of plastic ever created is still present on our Earth today in our lands and oceans, which ultimately ends up in our ecosystems, in our food, and our bodies (3). Plastic is a plague on our Earth, animals, and ourselves. We need to consume less of it before it starts to consume us. There are a number of ways to consume less plastic but I am going to offer 10 very easy switches. 1. Plastic Water Bottle → Reusable / Refillable Water Bottle Americans use about 50 billion water bottles per year and only about 23% of them are recycled (4). To make things worse, for every 1 liter of bottled water in your local supermarket, 3 liters have been used to make and ship it to you (5). That is a lot of water going to waste. If the average American made the swap to a reusable water bottle, they would individually eliminate 167 plastic bottles from our world (6). This switch is a really small change that results in a positive impact.
2. Disposable, Single-Use Cup → Reusable Cup As of 2017, Harvard has reported that 62% of Americans over 18 drink coffee every day (7). According to research conducted by Harvard’s School of Public Health, Americans drink an average of 3.1 cups a day (8). If you do the math, that is a whole lot of coffee being consumed on a regular basis which results in a lot of disposable cups ending up in landfills. Let’s not forget about tea either. In 2017, it was estimated that Americans consumed over 84 billion servings of tea, or more than 3.8 billion gallons (9). Approximately four in five consumers drink tea and 87% of these consumers are Millennials (9). If you get your coffee or tea during a Starbucks run, bring your own cup to enjoy your delicious beverage in. Bringing in your own cup not only helps the planet and contributes to your personal style, but it also helps you save money; you can get anything between 10 cents and 10% off your order! So, enjoy your beverage, be an environmental steward, and save money... I don’t see a downside here!
3. Unsustainable Coffee & Tea → Sustainable Coffee & Tea While we are on the topic of coffee and tea, let’s talk about their inherently unsustainable and un-eco-friendly nature. If you do not buy coffee at Starbucks, that is awesome, but when you make it at your home, what is your process? If you have a Keurig, you may use the individual k-pods to make your coffee. While k-pods are considered recyclable, they are actually rarely accepted by most recycling facilities due to food contact, so they only end up in the trash. Instead of using single-use k-pods, opt for a reusable k-pod! Keurig actually has their own reusable k-pods and they are packaged without plastic! If you have a traditional coffee maker, do you use a paper filter? While paper is not as harmful as plastic, the single use and disposable nature of a paper filter is incredibly questionable and wasteful. Invest in a reusable coffee filter instead! If you have neither, I would suggest a French Press. A French Press is an all encompassing unit that allows you to make coffee easily, without needing any type of filter.
As far as tea is concerned, did you know that many tea bag manufacturers use a thin lining of plastic to seal tea bags as well as help them keep their shape (10)? This lining fuses with the paper lining of the bag to hold it together. Even though this is a relatively small component of the bag, due to this plastic lining, these tea bags are unable to biodegrade. So, not only are you ingesting plastic, but that tea bag will just stay in landfill. Try loose leaf tea and get yourself a strainer or refillable tea bags for completely plastic free tea!
I also recommend finding tea and coffee that is Fairtrade and/or Rainforest Trade Alliance certified for the most sustainable tea and coffee that you can get. Why? Just trust me. I can do a whole other blog just talking about these two certification programs and how great they are.
4. Fast Food → Make Your Own Food On any given day in the United States, an estimated 36.6% or approximately 84.8 million adults consume fast food (11). Among them, 44.9% of adults ages 20 to 39 said that they consumed fast food on a given day (11). With fast food comes convenience and ease, but it also comes with an insane amount of plastic and single-use items such as, but not limited to, straws, napkins, bags, boxes, containers, silverware, condiments, etc. All of these things are used once, if they are used at all, and then thrown away. Sometimes, we have good intentions and if we do not use an item, we tend to store it, whether it’s a straw in our center console or duck sauce in our fridge. However, let’s be real, how likely is it that we reach for that sauce? How often do we find ourselves in a strawless predicament? I say very rarely (if you do, get a reusable steel one, but I digress). Making your own food is not only good for you, but you significantly limit your waste when you do so. If time is a concern for you, meal prep a week’s worth of food on a lazy Saturday or Sunday and store your meals!
5. Coming to Work Without Food → Making a Travel Lunch Kit If you are going to make your own food, you are going to need a travel kit to go along with you! If you are eating breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner at the office, be prepared! Get yourself a lunch box/bag, pack up some silverware from home (or find yourself some to-go ware to keep in your lunch box, I personally use bamboo utensils to avoid plastic cutlery), and pop in a cloth napkin instead of a paper napkin or paper towel and you are all set to have a zero waste lunch! By bringing your own food in your awesome travel kit, you are less likely to go out and eat which will help you save more money AND reduce the amount of waste you produce.
6. Plastic Shopping Bags → Reusable Shopping Bags Simply put, plastic bags are the worst invention known to mankind. Americans alone use 100 billion plastic bags a year, and the average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year (12). Only 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling and the rest end up in landfills as litter (12). These plastic bags ultimately find their way into our oceans where they kill 100,000 marine animals annually and end up in the stomachs of 1⁄3 of all leatherback sea turtles (12). Plastic bags take over 500 years to degrade in a landfill and they do not even break down completely; they photo-degrade and become microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment (12). Plastic bags cause so much damage to our environment and to ourselves and are only used for an average of 12 minutes (12). 12 minutes. Invest in reusable shopping bags to replace plastic bags and place them in visible spots where you will not forget them: in your car, hanging on a doorknob, in the kitchen, wherever! Not only should you stop using plastic bags at check out, but you should also refuse the plastic bags in the fresh produce area. Try putting your fruits and veggies bare in the cart or placing them in your reusable bags.
7. Going to the Supermarket → Trying Out a Local Farmers Market I am not completely knocking supermarkets, but often times, you will find a lot of unnecessary plastic packaging. Like, bananas wrapped in plastic wrap, an unpeeled orange placed in a plastic container, and sets of peppers placed in a crinkly plastic bag, just to name a few. Going to a Farmers Market is a sure way to get fresh and seasonal goods that are sold without plastic. Not only is the food fresh and seasonal, it is local, which significantly cuts down your carbon footprint! It is also a great way to become connected and involved with your community. Be sure to bring your own bag though, as some vendors may still use plastic bags.
8. Throwing Away Food → Storing Leftovers in Containers & Repurposing Food Food waste is too real. Roughly 30-40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted, which works out to more than 20 pounds of food per person per month (13). If wasted food was a country, it would be the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, after the United States and China (13). So not only is food waste terrible for the environment, but it is actually a big waste of money too, if you think about it. So don’t throw your leftovers out; invest in good, long-lasting containers to store your leftovers! Tired of the same thing? Look up ways to remake your leftovers into something new; give yourself a chance to be creative! Another way to decrease your food waste is to compost, whether it’s by dumping your inedible, “bad” leftovers or by tossing aside the cores, ends, and/or skins of fruits and vegetables while you are making food. When food can no longer nourish you, give it the opportunity to nourish the Earth. There are a variety of ways to compost so whether you are in a college dorm or have a couple of acres of land, composting can work for everybody!
9. All Meat Everyday → Meatless Mondays! 51% of Global Greenhouse Emissions come from livestock and their byproducts and 13% are due to transport (14). The average gallons of water needed to produce 1 pound of beef is 1,799, for one pound of pork is 576, and for one pound of chicken is 468 (15). No matter how you spin it, a primary meat diet is not a great diet in terms of climate change, water consumption, and the Earth’s overall health. The Environmental Defense Fund has calculated that if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as if the nation removed more than 500,000 cars from U.S. roads! So, whether it is one meal a day or all of your meals one day a week, any little bit helps! A diet based more on plants actually helps reduce your risk for heart disease too... more days for you to keep fighting for this planet (16)!
10. Being Silent and Uninformed → Being Vocal and Informed This is probably the most important switch ever. Now that you have this information at your disposal, tell your friends and family and encourage them to seriously consider the implications of their plastic-related life choices. Talk to your local government officials about your concerns about plastic consumption and push for legislative action. Support businesses that reduce their carbon footprint, environmental impact, and plastic use. At the end of the day, there is only so much we as individuals can do; governments and businesses need to start being held accountable and need to be made responsible for our collective futures on this planet.
References (1) Tapia, J. E. (2018, January 16). Why millennials embrace minimalism & zero waste. – Julenne Esquinca Tapia – Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@julenneesquincatapia/why-millennials-embrace-minimalism-zero- Waste-aa168685d0cd
(2) D'Alessandro, N. (2014, April 7). 22 facts about plastic pollution (and 10 things we can do about it). Retrieved from https://www.ecowatch.com/22-facts-about-plastic-pollution-and-10-things-we-can-do-ab Out-it-1881885971.html
(3) Gonzaga, D. (2017, January 6). Every single piece of plastic ever made still exists. Here's the story. Retrieved from https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/7281/every-single-piece-of-plastic-ever- made-still-exists-heres-the-story/
(4) Fact Sheet: Single Use Plastics. (2018, April 10). Retrieved from https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/29/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/
(5) Bottled Water and Energy Fact Sheet. (2007, February). Retrieved from https://pacinst.org/publication/bottled-water-and-energy-a-fact-sheet/
(6) Bottled Water Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.banthebottle.net/bottled-water-facts/ (7) Our collective coffee craze appears to be good for us. (2018, June 22). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/coffee-health-benefits/
(8) Coffee by the Numbers. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/multimedia-article/facts/
(9) Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. (2018). Tea Fact Sheet 2018-2019. Retrieved from http://www.teausa.com/14655/tea-fact-sheet
(10) Miles, L. (2018, April 5). Is There Plastic in Your Teabag? Retrieved from https://treadingmyownpath.com/2018/04/05/plastic-teabags/
(11) Howard, J. (2018, October 03). Here's how much fast food Americans are eating. Retrieved From https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/03/health/fast-food-consumption-cdc-study/index.
(12) Center for Biological Diversity. (n.d.). The Problem with Plastic Bags. Retrieved from https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/sustainabilit y/plastic_bag_facts.html
(13) World Food Program USA. (2017, November 2). 8 facts to know about food waste and hunger. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.wfpusa.org/articles/8-facts-to-know-about-food-waste-and-hunger/
(14) World Watch. (2009, November/December). Livestock and climate change. [PDF file]. http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf
(15) Hallock, B. (2014, January 27). To make a burger, first you need 660 gallons of water. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-gallons-of-water-to-make-a-burger-20140 124-story.html
(16) Harvard Health Publishing. (2018, January). The right plant-based diet for you. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-right-plant-based-diet-for-you