Green thoughts, green deeds
Just last week, research suggested that artificial materials like plastic, concrete, asphalt and other human-made materials now outweigh the entire natural biomass on earth like plants and trees. In the early 1900s, artificial mass accounted for only 3% of the total biomass on Earth. While the whole world grapples with a pandemic, a vaccine seems like an effective cure to COVID-19. But what about the the biggest long-term crisis that humankind is already facing? Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for climate change. According to GatesNotes, “in the next decade or two, the economic damage caused by climate change will likely be as bad as having a COVID-sized pandemic every ten years.” The lower carbon footprint due to quarantine is only 7% lower than the previous year and the impoverished are becoming more poor due to the pandemic. Poorer countries contribute the least to climate change but will be the ones suffering the most. It only makes sense that countries and organizations that are the biggest contributors to the climate crisis should be held accountable for their actions.
One solution to this problem is charging fees to the producers of greenhouse emissions. Another novel solution to the climate crisis: almost $14 trillion have been divested from fossil fuels to be invested in renewable resources. However, a sustainable lifestyle is not just limited to recycling or waiting for government and businesses to check the use of fossil fuels. The ‘green movement’ is spreading faster than ever before with school children marching on the streets (now virtually) and the novel pandemic home-grown food movement is taking us back to nature. Many countries are setting lofty goals to become carbon neutral by 2050 (zero net emissions). Local community food fridges invite those who wish to donate fresh or packaged foods to those in need.
|Community fridge instructions in Austin, Texas, where philanthropy and ecology unite|
The pandemic is making it challenging for individuals and businesses to practice sustainability due to fear of contagion despite eco-consciousness. Recently, we were at one of our favorite restaurants in Austin for a respite from home cooking and were shocked to see everything disposable from the plates and silverware to table cloths for dining in. After a conversation with the owner, he explained that it was to heighten the perception of hygiene and safety of the customer. The disposable waste problem is further exacerbated by single-use face masks, increased food delivery and online shopping due to the pandemic.
In this article, I want to highlight that by working on just a few simple sustainable changes at a time and questioning wasteful practices, we can create a lasting environmental and economical impact.
|Carrying our own reusable bags, containers, and silverware in the car trunk at all times|
Being ecological is not about perfection. It just takes a bit of thought, planning and organization. While many zero-waste practitioners have been able to reduce their yearly waste to fit into a glass jar, it might not be possible for the majority of us. The main point is to start making a few changes and being mindful of every little action on the environment.
I have outlined some easy practices that we have adopted in our journey to be less wasteful by adopting the four R’s of sustainability: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Note that the order of these Rs is important as they are arranged based on highest to least priority.
- Try not to buy unnecessary items and avoid panic-buying. Every purchase we make is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.
- Refuse to throw away stuff that doesn’t serve you. Look for ways to reuse, recycle or donate it instead.
- Try not to support businesses that don’t practice social and ecological responsibility. Voice your concerns to the management. More voices lead to more impact!
- Avoid using single-use items whenever possible like disposable silverware, straws, paper towels, etc.
- Become friends with filtered tap water and say no to bottled drinking water. Investing in a water filtration system is a lifetime money saver.
- At home, we try to minimize food waste. For example, I make a list of perishable food items on my fridge and prioritize cooking in the order of expiration. Donate excess food to community fridges or food banks.
- Avoid take-out as it involves throwing away single-use containers, bags and silverware. Instead, opt for outdoor dining whenever possible.
- Most restaurants in the US serve oversized waters with plastic straws upon seating the customers even without asking and a lot of the water and ice goes to waste. It’s OK to ask for only half a glass of water if you’re not super thirsty. By the way, not drinking too much water during meals is great for your health according to Ayurveda.
- While ordering at a restaurant, try to say no to extra sauces, condiments, excess paper napkins or ingredients you don’t care for.
|On this board, we prioritize cooking based on expiration dates|
- Agriculture and animal husbandry are the second biggest producers of greenhouse emissions. Instead of eating meat every day, cut it down to once a week or month. Look at people like Tom Ford or Cesar Chavez or hundreds of other famous vegans out there.
- Less is more. The simple yet powerful concept of de-cluttering is nothing new. Thanks to Marie Kondo, the minimalist movement is back in the limelight. In the yogic philosophy, aparigraha (non-hoarding) and santosha (contentment) are among the first of eight pillars of yoga. Limiting our physical possessions to what is truly necessary is great for mental health. It also lessens our attachment to things and ideas that don’t serve us anymore. The piles of clothes that I had accumulated over many years were becoming a source of confusion and misery and it took some courage to finally donate hundreds of pieces to regain a sense of control and peace.
- This holiday season, gift experiences instead of things. Thoughtfully choose reusable gifts that will be appreciated and used over many years.
- A little education goes a long way. Tell your friends and family about sustainable ways to live a lifestyle that is mindful of the impact that our every action creates for us and our surroundings. Just last week, New York City introduced a bill to incentivize local buying that will “impose a flat $3 fee on all online purchases delivered to New York City, except food and essential medical supplies, to be paid by the customer.” Hopefully, this will make consumers think before clicking on the purchase button and discourage binge shopping.
- Another area to reduce waste can be bathroom and cleaning supplies. Choose products that are biodegradable, reusable and packaged sustainably. Even better, make your own with natural ingredients. Shampoo, soap, lotion, detergent and conditioner bar are easy to start with.
- Bidets and water bottles are widely used in some parts of the world for cleaning up after toilet visits. They are a much cleaner and easier alternative to using just toilet paper. Here is a fun song dedicated to the Tabo (water pitcher) from the Philippines.
|Clean energy and meat reduction can cut down climate change by 45%|
- Opt for reusable or biodegradable items instead of disposables. These can range from shopping bags, bath and beauty products, kitchenware, glassware, and face masks, to storage boxes and containers.
- Looking at the trashcan gives a good picture of the items that we can possibly put to alternative uses. For instance, those single-use grocery store produce bags make for great small trashcan liners.
- So many single-use items are made to last a lifetime. A super-star example are San Pellegrino glass bottles. We have been using them for the last six months as drinking water bottles.
- For non-medical use, reusable face coverings suffice. For healthcare workers, the N95 masks are in short supply so Duke University has developed a method of disinfecting them using vaporized hydrogen peroxide for reuse. These have proven to be a great way to reduce waste and prevent risk of infection.
- About 12,000 disposable menstrual products end up in landfills or oceans over a person’s lifetime. What many don’t realize is the variety of reusable menstrual products available from cups, pads, tampons and undies to sea sponges that last between 5-10 years! Sustainable menstruation is great for personal, economic and ecological well-being.
- Don’t forget to save the fresh produce twist ties for sealing snack bags and folding long wires.
- Reduce single-use items when dining out by carrying our own to-go boxes, reusable spoon, fork, knives and chopstick sets when reusable options are unavailable; we always keep these in our car trunk. After using, we place them in a separate used spoon cover, wash and put them right back in the car.
|Our reusable glass water bottles and water filters are environment friendly and help us save some extra money|
- A confusing step of the 4 R’s due to classification, recycling in the US has suffered a big blow since China placed strict restrictions on recyclable imports in 2018. Despite glass being an infinitely recyclable, only a third of it gets recycled because of associated costs and single stream collection. As for broken glass pieces, they can take about a million years to decompose. To make matters worse, ‘wish-cycling’ or throwing non-recyclable items like plastic bags, batteries, light bulbs, and soiled items into recycling bins renders the recycling process kaput. However, DIY recycling can be extremely rewarding.
- Try to recycle food scraps and organic waste into compost.
- Don’t throw away the fiber from juice extraction. Incorporate it into dishes like mashed potatoes, eggs, patties or stir fries.
Only 9% of the total plastic ever produced has been recycled, UN Environment
Questioning and educating businesses about sustainability has its own rewards. A local food truck serving about 200 customers per day was using disposable plastic silverware. I asked them if they had contemplated using more sustainable options. On my next visit, I was surprised to see that they were now using wooden forks and spoons. I acknowledge that there is still room for improvement because the most sustainable action would be to incentivize the customers for bringing their own reusable silverware and moving away from disposables altogether. But it’s about the small first steps.
Freshly opened green coconut water is something everybody should experience at least once in their lifetime. Virtually every part of the coconut has a use. In countries like India, coconuts are so plentiful you can get one for 30 cents on the side of the road. It’s an experience even to see how easy the coconut-wala (vendor) makes it seem to open it. When done sipping, most people ask for the fresh young coconut cream on the inside. One big blow and the coconut is parted into two; a make-shift spoon is then cut out from the side of the green shell and the cream is scraped out into the coconut bowl to be eaten. Everything about an Indian young coconut experience is sustainable but the only caveat is the wide use of plastic straw to drink out of the coconut itself. So, we refuse to drink out of a straw and just purse lips to drink straight out of the coconut. We also explain the vendors about the plastic straw waste and educate them about paper straws. The vendor we frequent invested in paper straws and we hope he doesn’t go back to plastic. Businesses with a conscience prioritize customer feedback.
|Why put plastic in a coconut when you can kiss it?|
Some resources for further exploration
Facebook groups are an excellent resource for crowd sourcing ideas (Humans Who Grow Food, Zero Waste Minimalist). Many neighborhoods have local “Buy Nothing” groups where neighbors can ask for and give away anything from food to furniture.
|One of the best Buy Nothing group gifts I received is this zine artwork by Bella Cheng describing the impact of this amazing community through some of the items the artist has given and received for free!|
Get involved with local chapters of organizations committed to solve the climate change crisis. Keep educating yourself with books, documentaries, and blogs. Some recommended watching: Trashopolis and Broken - Recycling Sham to name a few.
If you have made it this far into this topic that is so close to my heart, please consider subscribing to keep yourself in the loop! Please feel free to share about your own eco-friendly ideas in the comments and don’t let this pandemic further fuel the global warming crisis. I hope you will realize a dire need for creating change, however small, towards a more socially, economically and ecologically sustainable world using some ideas I mentioned. Although some zero-waste movements set high standards on radical waste reduction, it is not about perfection. As residents of this beautiful planet we call home, we have a moral obligation to protect and preserve it. Imagine if your own backyard were a landfill — would you think twice before throwing away anything in the trash? What matters is that we are conscious about our impact on the world around us, and to keep striving to make this world a better place.
Think green, act green