Helping The Environment Means Buying Less Sh*t––And Other Things We Should Start Doing

by Elizabeth Broadbent

Remember cutting your plastic six-pack holders so they didn’t hurt sea turtle? Forgetting marked you as a no-good, horrible, very bad human intent on turtle murder. We bitched when many companies stopped providing bags, and complained about going strawless. But climate change is real, and it’s scary as all fuck. Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swedish activist who staged a climate change strike three years ago and hasn’t stopped since, isn’t making this shit up. Years ago, scientists predicted an environment gone haywire: melting glaciers and ice sheets, increasingly violent storms, and heat waves. Just this summer, The New York Times notes that we’ve seen “blistering” heat waves across the United States and Europe. Hundreds died. Newsflash: Ireland isn’t air-conditioned.

That’s not all. We’ve also seen monster floods in Germany and China. Oregon and California aren’t the only places on fire. This summer alone, so was Siberia, Turkey, and Greece. Global temperatures have risen two degrees, which doesn’t sound like much, but the last ice age was only five to nine degrees cooler than world temperatures. The Ice Age. You know, when significant parts of the world were swathed in ice.

Pollution has also spiraled out of control. In the Pacific ocean an area twice the size of Texas has become a gyre of floating plastic known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

It’s easy to feel hopeless. We need governments to act, especially our own — but we’re not powerless. And it’s important for Americans to lead the way: we’re each responsible for more than thirty times the carbon emissions than, say, a farmer in Bangladesh. It seems totally overwhelming. But there are things we can do to help.

Of course not all of this is feasible for everyone. But if you do have the resources to do these things, do it. Because if you do your part, then it helps offset for those who can’t.

1. Help The Environment By Changing Your Eating

It’s estimated that Americans waste a full forty percent of the food they buy. Donate it. Only buy what you need. If we stopped food waste, we’d save 70.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which would do more than re-growing 435 million acres of tropical forest. Green America reports that we can also start eating a plant-based diet: going vegetarian can half your carbon emissions. Even shifting to a low-meat diet can decrease your emissions by a third. “If half the world reduced their meat consumption,” avoiding that much deforestation could stop 66 gigatons of carbon emissions.

Imagine that difference: we could stop more carbon emissions by simply wasting less food than we could by asking half the world’s population to eat less meat. Only buy what you need instead of letting it rot in your fridge. And while you’re at it, buy organic. It reduces pollution and energy consumption. You can also buy local: food grown close to you has less of a transportation impact than say, strawberries from South America.

2. Save Energy At Home

Remember all that stuff about unplugging your TV and turning off lights? It adds up. Turning your heater down cuts your house’s energy consumption. Change the way you do laundry: only wash full loads, decrease your washer’s temperature, and line-dry your clothes. Change your lights to low-electricity LEDs instead of conventional light bulbs. Yeah, they’re more expensive. But they pay for themselves when they last for years on end.

3. Helping The Environment Means Buying Less Shit

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You don’t need everything you buy. Simple: when you buy less (including all those groceries that go bad), you throw less into landfills. That includes everything from clothing to makeup to art supplies. While it’s hard to compute how much carbon that could save, since it depends on your personal lifestyle, it adds up to a lot. Do your kids really need that many toys? Do you need four TVs, or can you live with three?

It’s estimated that the clothing industry “uses 3% of the world’s global production of emissions,” says the BBC. Much of it is disposable: do you really wear that shirt for more than one season? Go to any Goodwill and you’ll see it: secondhand stores are overburdened by T-shirts from family reunions, school shirts, summer camp shirts — clothes meant to be used for a week or a day. Stop making them, and ask organizations to stop making them, too.

4. Stop Using So Much Plastic

Almost every kind of plastic comes from fossil fuels — and it emits carbon at every stage of its life cycle. The world uses about a trillion plastic bags a year. Bring your own bags to the grocery store. Keep them in your trunk or by your door. Remember your own water bottle instead of buying plastic bottles. Does it come with microbeads? Don’t buy it: the beads can slip through water-treatment plants and end up in streams, animals’ bellies, and that Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Buy products with less packaging — or borrow them instead.

5. Use Sustainable Transportation

Flying is one of the single most carbon-heavy thing a human can do to help the environment. If you live in a city, try to bike or take public transportation instead of driving. Annoy your city asking for improvement in public transportation while you’re at it. And yes: buy that electric car. Your gasoline-powered beast contributes about a quarter of your carbon intake.

6. Recycle Your Crap

Recycle. You know you toss those aluminum cans in the trash, don’t recycle your water bottles, and toss your amazon boxes with the garbage even when there’s recycling systems in place. Actually utilize them. And where they aren’t available, advocate for them. And recycle properly: only recycle your water bottles, not the caps; drop off your plastic bags at grocery stores who collect and recycle them. Don’t toss broken bottles in your recycling bin, and make sure you remove all metal parts from them. Keep your paper products separate from the rest of the recycling, break down boxes, and don’t toss in any paper that’s greasy or wet (your pizza boxes are not recyclable, people).

7. Use Cloth Instead Of Paper Products Whenever Possible

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Cut apart your old clothes — the ones too stained or falling apart to donate — and use them instead of paper towels. Instead of ditching your towels, use them to mop up big spills. Replace your paper napkins with cloth.

Disposable diapers account for 7% of all household waste. While cloth diapers use water and detergent — creating emissions and pollution — if they’re reused for other children, repurposed as rags, and borrowed, they do save energy and emissions, according to The New York Times. Even better, line-dry them, wash fuller loads, and reduce the temperature of your washer. My prefolds, flat diapers, and covers — which involved minimal plastic, unlike all-in-one diapers — lasted three kids through potty training. If you use them in the ways we’ve described they are better for the environment than disposables. But if you wash them on super-hot water, dry them, use them for one kid, and trash them, they aren’t any better than ‘sposies.

8. Can You Fix It Instead Of Replacing It?

Simple. This goes along with “buying less shit.” And it really can help the environment. Use your phone longer rather than replacing it yearly. Make that Chromebook last — get it fixed instead of trashing it. Get on YouTube and learn how to fix things rather than replacing them. You can sew holes in clothes. You are capable. I promise.

9. Changing Your Dog Food Can Actually Help The Environment

Slate recommends that you feed your dog chicken- and lamb-based food rather than beef, which has a larger carbon footprint. And feed your dog treats that aren’t meat-based, like cheese. Every dog goes ballistic for cheese.

You actually can help the environment. And yes: you should vote based on climate change, pressure lawmakers, and lobby for more carbon-efficient policies. You should buy that electric car, and you should install solar panels. You should check your stock portfolio and invest in industries with a smaller carbon footprint. But these are big things, and they seem unattainable — we don’t all have the money to install solar panels, no matter how much cheaper they’re becoming.

But you can make small changes to help the environment. These changes add up. You know how we blame Boomers for fucking up the environment and refusing to act on climate change? If we don’t make changes for our kids’ sakes, we’re as bad as they are.