Simple Secrets for Sustainable Living
By Tayler Jenkins
The effort to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle can feel daunting and even hopeless at times, often enough so much so that it can lead one to wonder whether it’s even worth trying. Yet, when we make small efforts every day, it is not only personally fulfilling but also inspiring for others. Richard Rogers says “The only way forward, if we are going to improve the quality of the environment, is to get everybody involved.” Indeed, every bit that we do in our daily lives plays a role in bringing humankind that much closer to a healthier world for us and, importantly, future generations. The ideas I’ve listed below are simple and easy to integrate into your lifestyle, yet can substantially reduce your impacts and raise your day-to-day consciousness about the direct and indirect effects that your actions have on the world around you.
Recycle, Upcycle, and Prevent Waste
According to the EPA, about 80 percent of what we throw away in the U.S. is recyclable, yet our country’s recycling rate is only 28 percent. Recycling is vital for decreasing your impact on the planet because it diverts waste from landfills and also prevents new materials from being created. Better yet, consume less in general. Don’t buy what you don’t need, or buy it secondhand. A fun and creative way to consume less is to try reusing or upcycling your old things. You could turn wine bottles into DIY decorations, or revamp an old T-shirt by cutting it into a tank top (If you need some inspiration, my personal favorite place to look is on Pinterest).
Perhaps one of the easiest and most important things you can do is say goodbye to plastic single-use items. If you don’t already have one, invest in a reusable beverage container and reusable utensil that you can carry around with you. Ever since I started carrying my spork in my bag I have been able to use that instead of reaching for a plastic utensil that would inevitably be thrown away. I cannot express enough how easy this is to do and how much it has helped me to reduce waste.
Did you know that 40 percent of our food is wasted? That’s 20 pounds of food per person per month (NRDC)! We can drastically reduce this number by only buying what we know we will eat, saving our leftovers for later and composting what we won’t eat. Compost is great for your garden, or if you don’t grow your own food you can give it to a friend or neighbor that does.
Speaking of food, there are substantial food-related choices you can make to reduce your impact beyond eliminating food waste. The Environmental Working Group completed life cycle assessments for different types of meats and other foods. They found that meat and dairy production have a greater environmental footprint than production of plant-based foods, with lamb and beef having the highest carbon dioxide emissions by far (Read more about their study here).
Kilograms of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere per kilogram of food. From EWG.org
Try having one meat-free day and, if it resonates with you, you might think about shifting it to a weekly ordeal (Meatless Mondays, anyone?). If you don’t want to give up all meat, consider cutting out just red meat. Minimizing meat intake is a tangible and quantifiable thing you can do to reduce your environmental impact, plus it comes with a wide array of health benefits when done properly. Consider it a win-win for your body and the environment!
What about food sourcing? Pesticides from conventionally-grown food contribute to negative environmental impacts since they can run into streams and bodies of water. Buying organic food or growing your own food without the use of pesticides is another way that you can support practices that are beneficial to the environment rather than detrimental. Additionally, eating locally can reduce emissions related to food miles (the number of miles food travels to reach your plate).
Growing herbs is a great place to start if you are new to gardening.
Reduce your Carbon Footprint
Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are a major contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change. If it makes sense with your commute, try riding a bicycle or taking public transportation instead of driving to the places you need to go. Automobiles are among the largest sources of carbon emissions, so choosing an alternative mode of transportation is a great way to make a significant difference in reducing your impact (not to mention saving money from going down your gas tank).
Did you know that your appliances use energy when they’re plugged in, even when they are turned off? This is called “phantom load” and you can prevent it by unplugging electronics when not in use. Another super easy way to reduce your energy impact is by simply making sure you turn off the lights when you leave the room.
If everyone lived the way you do, how many Earths would it take to sustain the human population? This measurement is called your carbon (or environmental) footprint, and you can actually calculate it yourself through an assessment of various aspects of your lifestyle. A great tool for this is the minibuk How Green Am I? which you can find here. Or, try this carbon footprint calculator from The Nature Conservancy.
The excessive amount of water we use in cities can be stressing to the water supply, especially in dry climates. Little things like taking shorter showers or turning off the water while soaping up or brushing your teeth can save gallons of water every day. Did you know that showering with a normal shower head uses 7 gallons of water per minute, and running the faucet in your sink uses 3 gallons of water per minute? That can really add up! Switching to a low-flow shower head reduces the water usage from 7 to 2.5 gallons per minute (Franklin Institute). If you live in a dry climate, you may consider how much water is being used on your lawn and rethink your landscape options. For desert gardeners, it may be a good idea to invest in crops that are not water-intensive, such as fava beans or other native desert plants. Most of all, just notice when you are using water at times or in places that it isn’t necessary.
If you don’t already, I challenge you to think of yourself as a steward of the Earth and try to embody that mentality in your day-to-day life. It’s all about creating habits, so choose a few of these that really speak to you and try them out. The ones that work for you will stick. Make riding your bike to work a regular routine. Vow to shorten your showers by a few minutes each time until you have them as short as possible. Bring that sleek tumbler with you when you go out for your daily cup o’ Joe, and keep building up that deliciously nutrient-rich compost with your food scraps. This world needs more people who are bold enough to break the status quo. So, let this be your kickoff point for a long, fruitful journey in environmental awareness. Your actions will help to create a better world for our fellow humans and all of life on Earth.
Tayler is an Arizona native living in Portland, OR. A self-proclaimed “real foodie,” has done extensive research on food systems and took a leading role in activism on her college campus to spread education and awareness about healthy, ethical food. In 2013, she spent a few months living on a permaculture farm in Nepal conducting research on conservation farming and local food system governance. Tayler received a BS in Sustainability from Arizona State University in 2015 and is the operations manager for Urban Farm U and editor of two newsletters: Urban Farm Lifestyle and The Permaculture Life. She intends to use these as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming and sustainability. Tayler can be reached at Tayler@urbanfarm.org.