Between sentimental Facebook videos of sickly polar bears, injured sea turtles, and a recently popular anti-plastic straw movement, you’ve probably heard that we’re practically single-handedly killing the planet. While you sit in a state of mixed guilt and helplessness, you might wonder: “How much can I really do?” It’s not like you can quit your job and join the peace corps, you’re beyond busy, and, despite your best efforts, you just can’t give up a good steak. So how do you save the planet?
The answer is sustainable living.
What is Sustainable Living?
Sustainable living is not about going out of your way to do anything new, it’s about giving thought to everything you already do. That means realizing that every action you make, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, has an after effect. Every time you brush your teeth, you may not think about how your toothbrush has an afterlife of 500 years in a landfill. Every time you run out of shampoo, you might not realize that container can be recycled just like any plastic drinking bottle. Every time you recycle a plastic bag, you might not realize you could be harming the recycling process way more than helping it.
The impact we have on our planet is a double-edged sword and, without the education to use it for the better, we’ll be the one’s getting hurt.
Most of us already know that you should use reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic ones, or that we can use tote bags instead of plastic shopping bags. There are countless sustainable alternatives to everyday choices that you can make. But ultimately, living sustainably is not just knowing eco-friendly alternatives; it’s about asking questions to continue making sustainable choices.
Questions to Ask and Try to Live More Consciously
Do my belongings serve a purpose?
Most of us are guilty of accumulating a bit of junk from time to time; but buying things we don’t need creates a demand for pointless production of objects and more items to dispose of in the future. By making purchases with intent, you buy items with great quality and true function thus minimizing your trips to the store and less chances for mindless purchase. Less clutter means less stress, less waste, and more money in your pocket. Adopt a minimalist lifestyle and learn to let go of material objects.
Can I reuse this?
The EPA’s Waste Hierarchy lists methods of managing waste from most to least preferable. Reducing and avoiding waste is at the top and the second-best method is reusing items. Some items spend their afterlives in a landfill or the ocean – repurposing and reusing objects can keep them out of these unwanted places. Reusing glass jars as new containers, coffee cans as planters, or buying clothes from a thrift store are just a few examples of how to keep items in use and stop us from producing more than what we need.
Do I actually know how to recycle?
For most of us, the extent of our recycling education is being told that plastics, glass, and paper are recyclable. While that may be technically true, it isn’t that simple. Many facilities have restrictions as to what can be normally recycled. The condition of the recyclable can make a huge difference. For example, pizza boxes are technically cardboard paper; however, pizza boxes cannot be recycled because they are contaminated with grease and food residue. If contaminated items get recycled, they can ruin entire batches of recyclables making the entire batch useless. Additionally, specific types of plastics (identified by that tiny number inside the recycling symbol) can be difficult or even impossible to recycle. Learn how to properly recycle so that your good intentions don’t turn counterproductive.
Important Recycling Tips to get You Started
• Coffee cups are not recyclable. Cups are layered with a thin coat of tightly bonded polyethylene (plastic) liner to make the cup waterproof. An estimated 60 billion paper cups in the U.S end up in landfills every year because they cannot be recycled. Use reusable coffee cups to significantly reduce waste contribution.
• You cannot recycle paper shreds. Recycling machinery cannot process the scraps due to their small size and it is difficult to collect. While some facilities are specific about the size of the shreds, it is best to avoid recycling them overall. Instead, compost the shreds of paper.
• While you can recycle most plastic bottles from soaps and lotions, the dispenser pumps are not commonly recyclable. Many pumps contain metal springs that prevents them from being sorted with other plastics. Make sure to check your pump or remove it before recycling the container.
• Like pizza boxes, paper products such as napkins or paper towels cannot be recycled when contaminated with oils or food. Instead, rip the paper or cardboard pieces and compost them.
There are many more tips out there to help you ease into sustainable living, so don’t let this blog post be the end of it. Take this as a push towards your new commitment to a mutually beneficial lifestyle with the planet.
My book, Mind What Matters, goes more in depth about what you can do in your everyday life to live sustainably with minimal effort. Doing your part can be as simple as asking a few questions before acting. Educate yourself and others on sustainable living and you’ll find that even the smallest changes can make a huge difference in saving the planet.
Ariana is a graphic designer, photographer, and artist. She loves using her creativity to communicate larger messages concerning sustainability in an effort to popularize an eco-friendly lifestyle. You can keep up with her tips and artwork on her Instagram @ariananaria.