5 more impactful things to do than refuse a straw

There are a million ways to reduce our impact on the earth. On the surface, zero waste tackles pollution more than issues of emissions and climate change, but dig a little deeper and your waste reducing habits will probably help you reduce your CO2 emissions as well. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is emitted various ways and the increase in levels of this gas in the atmosphere are contributing to climate change and the disastrous consequences of average higher temperatures. Even more troubling is that real climate crisis may be approaching by 2040, well within the lifetime of many of us, and that new research has indicated that severe damage may be done with only 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming rather than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of warming as previously thought. It’s time to take this seriously and act for change.

While reducing your dependence on things that may later become pollutants (think disposable plastic) is a great way to reduce your waste and the waste of our finite resources, it is equally important we get a handle on our emissions. Of course, individual choices aren’t going to bring global emissions down across the board, but they are an immediately actionable way to live with a lighter footprint on the earth.

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DIET

In the US, agriculture made up 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, but worldwide “livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions”. The methane produced by ruminants like cows makes up almost 1/3 of the emissions from the agricultural sector.

This is just emissions. Animal products also waste water and energy in their production. Vegetarian and vegan diets can help you greatly  reduce your emissions. This article from The Independent sites that “researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.” It might be time to up your Meatless Mondays to a vegetarian lunch everyday or swap for a veggie patty next time you eat.

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
— Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets.

Without even adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can reduce your consumption of animal products. The good news is that various international health organizations, like the American Dietetic Association, approve of diets with few to no animal products as perfectly safe and healthy. Beef is especially harmful environmentally, so focusing on eating less red meat (which is typically recommended anyway) can be a good place to start. Other easy ways to reduce this consumption: skipping the meat in soups and opting for plant proteins like beans, skipping the cheese or meat on sandwiches, avoiding meat toppings on pizza, and trying to center you meals around fruits and veggies, as is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2018.

For more on other resources used and wasted in the production of animal products like dairy and meat, check out this post: Reducing Waste: Vegan diets, Omnivorous diets and Plastic

Buying Secondhand

Hopefully you’ve stepped into a thrift store or a consignment store in the past year, but if you haven’t, it’s time you did. All those clothes we’re buying at incredibly low prices? Those bargains are probably ethical nightmares, created through exploitative labor, polluting manufacturing, and irresponsible resource management, such as farming water intensive cotton in parts of the world where there isn’t enough water. Let’s also keep in mind that the clothing and footwear industries make up 8% of global greenhouse emissions, which is easily reduced considering how many of us have closets full of clothes we don’t wear.

By 2030, the climate impact of the apparel industry alone is forecast to nearly match today’s total annual US greenhouse gas emissions, emitting 4.9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
— Clothing and textile manufacturing's environmental impact and how to shop more ethically

In order to reduce the impact of clothing and shoe production, we need to buy less and take care of what we have. Most clothes contain a least some plastic (polyester, nylon, etc.) and the production of these materials requires a significant amount of energy, and adds nitrous oxide to the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is said to have a global warming effect almost 300 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. Knowing this, it should be easy to understand why you shouldn’t support the production of polyester and nylon any more than necessary. If it has polyester or nylon, don’t purchase the clothing new. Pick secondhand, and if you must buy new, support natural fibers. More on why to shop secondhand here, and if you’re interested in how to keep a zero waste wardrobe, here is how to have the perfect zero waste wardrobe.

Because of the 81 lbs of clothing Americans throw away each year, there is no shortage of secondhand clothes to purchase when your own clothes wear out. Considering the existing resources (clothes), there is little reason to buy new clothes made from new resources. Secondhand is sustainable as well as accessible, too. Not everyone can afford ethically and sustainably made goods new, but except for those living with exceptionally low resources, secondhand is an accessible and viable option.

And while we’re on the subject, only 2% of the 22 billion new clothing items Americans buy each year are made in the USA. That means that almost all of the new clothing you purchase was made abroad and had to be shipped across the world to be sold to you. The container ships that often carry these goods can create as much pollution as 50 million cars in a single year—another reason to support local secondhand or local and domestic made goods.

Energy use

I don’t know about you, but I heard about the importance of saving electricity and conserving energy for years before I actually learned why. Of American greenhouse gas emissions, 28% of those come from the transport sector and 28% come from producing electricity. For more on electricity, check out why saving electricity is inherently zero waste.

When it comes to transportation, the biggest culprits of greenhouse gas emissions are regular passenger cars and trucks, who make up more than half of transportation emissions. I directly contribute to these emissions myself, and chances are that you do too. The rest of these emissions come from planes, boats, trains and more. I’ve been guilty of long commutes in my life more than once, and it’s unrealistic to pretend that we can all find jobs closer to home or homes closer to work. That being said, we can choose to carpool to work. We can send kids to school on the bus instead of making extra trips to pick up. We can try and run all of our errands at once rather than going out four times a week. I’m also hardly one to tell you to travel less (did you read the zero waste travel: Italy series?). There are always options to buy carbon offsets for your travels, and it could be an option to make fewer long-haul flights a year

Electricity use is also a slippery slope, as (in case you hadn’t noticed) we need it. Much of our electricity is generated by the burning of fossil fuels, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Most troubling is coal, which the EPA sites as “about 67 percent of CO2 emissions from the sector, {and} it represented only about 32 percent of the electricity generated in the United States in 2016.” It’s also worth noting that only 14% of our electricity is coming from renewable energy, meaning that 86% of our electricity is being generated from sources that will run out. If you can reduce your electricity use, give it a try.

Contact companies

Voting with your dollar is big when it comes to ethical consumption. While it’s great not to give money to companies who don’t produce goods or package them in ways that align with your values, it’s even better to let them know why. There doesn’t seem to be research on the reactivity of companies to feedback from consumers, but your patronage is what they want. Especially with smaller companies, your voice can be heard. If you’ve never voiced a complaint (or voiced your approval) to a company because you don’t think it would matter, join the thousands of other consumers who didn’t voice their opinions because they think it doesn’t matter. If more of us pressured companies to do better, it could become a recognized customer desire for less plastic in packaging or more ethical production.

Use your voice. Greenindyblog has a great template you can find here.

Vote

Finally, I encourage (implore) you to vote. Look into candidates on the ballot! If you care about combating climate change, pick those who recognize the global scientific consensus of climate change and who champion legislation that limits irresponsible or unnecessary  greenhouse gas emissions and creates incentives for more sustainable power sources and the reduction of emissions. It is our right and responsibility to vote, and to truly change the world, we must ensure than change comes through law and regulation and not only ourselves.

If a registered voter does not have sufficient time outside of their working hours, within which to vote at any election, they may, without loss of pay for up to two hours, take off so much working time as will, when added to their voting time outside their working hours, enable them to vote.
— New York State Election Law

In the tense 2016 election, over 100 million Americans didn’t vote. For whatever reason those people did not vote, their votes mattered. If you are registered to vote, find out where your polls are. If you live in New York state like I do, the following applies to you:

Essentially, in NYS if you can’t vote outside of work due to polling or work hours, you can take up to two hours to go vote without the loss of pay. Find out your rights in your own state because you may also have specific rights outlined for leaving work in order to vote if you work during polling hours.

If you are not registered to vote, register as soon as you can. Even if you’re too late to register to vote in the coming November elections, register to be prepared for the next elections you will be eligible to vote in. If you are out of your district and won’t reasonably be able to return in order to vote, get your absentee ballot! When I was living in Brooklyn during the 2016 election but had a permanent address and voting district elsewhere, I sent in an absentee ballot, and it was very easy to do so.

Whatever your situation this year, take a minute to register, get your absentee ballot, or go vote. Change needs to happen at all levels.


Refuse the straw if you don’t need it and bring your reusable cup to Starbucks, but don’t forget there are larger goals than avoiding plastic. Refusing a straw is only a drop in the ocean, but refusing a single straw and continuing to partake in harmful consumption (fast fashion, eating factory farmed animal products in excess) is not enough. When there are real problems, we must call on real change. On all levels.


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