So you want to help the environment. While “going green” is an exciting and inspirational term, it’s a buzzword that’s almost as bad as “natural.” What do we mean? Well, lead and uranium are both natural – that doesn’t mean they’re good for you.
And green products suffer a lot of the same confusion. Just because you’re buying cutlery made from 100% organic bamboo, it doesn’t mean it’s good for the environment. How did that cutlery get from its manufacturer to your hands? How much packaging did you have to throw away to enjoy your new cutlery?
Production, manufacturing, and shipping account for a massive part of our carbon footprints. But they’re hard to measure. If China makes a product, China will take the boot for the carbon footprint. It also foots other waste produced in making that product, even though the product ends up in your hands.
And after the product is manufactured and packaged, it has to be shipped here. The carbon footprint for shipping products is still hard to track. But a single flight from Hong Kong to Seattle releases 1.7 tonnes of CO2 as a single passenger on a plane.
And now that you have your product, all the way from China, it comes in a cardboard box. There’s also packing peanuts, possibly a second, smaller box, and cellophane. You immediately discard all this.
All for some new bamboo cutlery.
That’s a lot of waste. And that’s what we mean when we say “going green” is confusing. You bought the bamboo cutlery because it’s good for the environment. Bamboo grows fast and it’s renewable – better than pulling metals out of the ground. But it still isn’t necessary “green.”
And most things are mixed in a massive web of environmental impact. There are packaging and transportation tolls, energy in production, toxins released in manufacturing. It’s hard to know the exact environmental toll of anything. Even things labeled eco-friendly or green might not be good for the environment.
But there are some simple things you can do, that will always be eco-friendly. Here are 5 things you can do that will actually help the environment.
Buy Second Hand
It’s not glamorous, it’s not trendy, and there aren’t as many options. But buying everything second hand is incredibly good for the environment. It keeps things out of the trash that might otherwise head to a landfill. The product is already in the U.S. so there’s no carbon footprint associated with shipping the product to you. And there’s minimal – if any packaging – on your second-hand product. Usually just a tag on a string or maybe a sticker.
Arguably, one of the worst things to happen to the environment is the creation and sale of new things. The bigger the scale, the more this is true. So by switching your shopping to local second-hand shops, you’ll be doing the environment a favor.
And ideally, plant-based. Livestock farming produces 20 to 50% of all man-made greenhouse gasses. Then that meat has to be transported to you. So that adds up.
Even though producing meat has a bigger carbon footprint, shipping produce adds up. In some cases, shipping produce can actually make produce worse, depending on how far it has to travel to get to you. By eating locally, you keep shipping out of the picture.
Rethink Your Transportation
So we’ve obviously talked a lot about how bad transporting things to you is bad for the environment. But the same thing goes for transporting you to wherever you need to be.
We don’t live in a perfect society. Buses run off schedule and trains are late. Walking isn’t always practical in a landscape dominated by vacant parking lots. But if you can cut back or replace the number of trips you take alone in your car, you’ll help the environment.
From worst to best (but better than driving alone):
- Drive a scooter or an electric car
- Catch a bus or subway
- Invest in an e-bike
- Walk or bike to your destination
One study found riding an e-bike created a carbon footprint 100 times SMALLER than driving a car. Changing the way you get around can add up fast, and make a real difference.
Just like we consume too much, we throw out too much. Zero-waste isn’t something you can make happen overnight. You may struggle to truly achieve it your entire life, but it’s something worth striving for. Cutting back on your waste can really make a difference.
Some tips to get started?
Tip 1: Do a Trash Audit
Take your trash out and empty it on a big tarp. Organize it and really take a look at where your waste is coming from. Most likely you’ll notice it’s primarily food waste and packaging that your food comes in. You may notice some primary offenders, so work on replacing those first.
Tip 2: Find a Store that Sells in Bulk
You may have to change grocery stores or switch to a local Farmer’s Market. But that’s a good change! Get in the habit of carrying reusable bags and storage containers with you when you go shopping. Write down the tare weight (the weight of the container) on your new container. This way the cashier knows how much of a difference to deduct when you’re charged for your products.
Tip 3: Make Changes You Can Stick With
Maybe you have a baby with the house, and your primary offender is dirty diapers. You could switch to cloth diapers. But do you actually want to take time to wash diapers along with all your other household work?
If not it’s okay! You don’t have to be perfect, you just want to be better than yesterday. If you’re not willing to give up specific trash, that’s fine! You’re not a failure. When you want to go zero-waste, focus on changes you’re comfortable sticking with.
Tip 4: Don’t Buy Fancy Zero Waste Trends
Yes, that bamboo cutlery in its cute little napkin is super cute. But if you replace your silverware for eco-friendly new stuff, you’re creating waste. The silverware you already have works fine. You don’t need to replace it.
Many zero waste products are completely unnecessary. Avoid them if you can, and instead, use something you already have.
Wear Things Out
This is as unglamorous as buying things second hand – but just as important. As a society, we tend to throw things away the first time they’re less than their store-bought perfectness. But that doesn’t mean they’re broken.
Learn to repair items when you can, or repurpose them. For example, a pair of jeans you can’t wear anymore can be crafted into a dog chew your dogs will love. (Don’t have dogs? Ask your local shelter if they accept DIY dog toys. Many of them do!)
By giving things new life, and extending their lives as long as possible, you keep them out of the landfill. On top of that, you don’t leave a void that needs to be replaced with something new.
Help the Environment By Making Things Last
Truth is, real impacts aren’t made with a shiny new Tesla or chic, Instagram-worthy zero-waste kits. Real impacts happen when you’re sweating on your way to work because you opted to ride your bike instead of your car. It happens when you wear holes with shoes because they still work. It happens when you embroider a flower over a stain on an otherwise perfectly good sweater.
Real impacts aren’t glamorous, but they are effective. These are changes you can make, that would actually make a difference to help the environment.
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