Not only can we be mindful about our own emotions and how our actions impact those we care about. We can also be mindful about how our eating and lifestyle habits are impacting the planet and the eco-system. And we must try to be more environmentally sustainable now more than ever – environmental sustainability is the responsible interaction with the environment to avoid further depletion of natural resources and to ensure long-term environmental quality (The Balance Small Business, 2020). Burning fossil fuels and coal, factory farming and deforestation generate greenhouse gasses (CO2, CH4, and N20) that are released and trapped in the atmosphere, which means less solar radiation from the sun can be deflected back into space, so instead the heat is re-radiated, causing the earth to warm. This has depleted natural resources and led to a climate shift resulting in extreme conditions such as forest fires and rising sea levels from melted glaciers. According to the NOAA 2019 Global Climate Summary , “the combined land and ocean temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.07°C per decade since 1880” (Climate.gov, 2020). Fortunately, it isn’t too late to reverse some of the damage. Although changes need to be made by world leaders, there are some things we can do individually to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle, they may seem insignificant, but if every person did as many of these suggestions as they could, then that is a step in the right direction.
Just so you know, I am not claiming to be some sort of Greta Thunberg, I know it takes research, practice, and patience. I am still learning how to be more sustainable myself, but I thought it would be useful for you to have this guide on where to start and maybe learn a thing or two along the way.
You’ve probably heard all the “meat is murder” and “eating meat is destroying the planet” phrases before. I’m not here to tell you to turn vegan, yes, following a plant-based diet supposedly causes less harm to the environment than an omnivorous diet – but soy and palm oil cultivation can also destroy wildlife habitats, harm endangered species and produce greenhouse gases. Even though most of this soy is fed to livestock, either way, the Amazon Rainforest is being destroyed at an alarming rate – 20% of the rainforest has been already cut down and scientists predict a further 40% will be destroyed and another 20% will degrade within the next two decades (Small Footprint Family, 2019). So, we see that having fish or meat on your plate isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s about moderation. And we need to consider much more than our diet alone.
I added fish back into my diet a few weeks ago. I was previously vegan, and I thought I would be for the rest of my life, so you could understand I felt hesitant at first. I won’t ramble on about my reasoning, but I decided it was the best decision for my health. My mind was made up once I researched the ways I could add fish back into my diet in a sustainable way. This looked like – only eating fish for 3 or 4 meals per week and eating plant-based the rest of the week. And only buying fish that was labelled ‘MSC certified’. It is important to choose responsibly sourced fish, so you know the fisheries are not overfishing, the fishing activity was managed carefully to ensure other species in the eco-system remained healthy and the fisheries complied with relevant laws (Marine Stewardship Council, 2020). It gets a bit trickier with meat, since factory farming is known to be one of the worse pollutants. But, if you’re adamant to keep meat in your diet, then there are some ways to do it that are slightly sustainable: you could eat less meat per week, have smaller portions of meat, buy from local farms or only buy pasture-raised meat, which means the animals spent their time unconfined and eating vegetation, so they were able to express their natural behaviours (FootPrint, 2020). I’d assume the same would apply to eating eggs and dairy too – moderating consumption, choosing free range / organic and buying from local farms. If your only concern is limiting your carbon footprint or ensuring you aren’t eating tainted meat, then hunting is a plausible option.
Each year, “4.5 tonnes of food waste is thrown away from UK households” (The Guardian, 2020). That’s not even including waste from supermarkets and restaurants. Considering all the people living on the streets or who cannot afford food, you’d think we would be more conscious about what we throw away, but that’s a whole other topic we don’t need to get into right now.
There are many ways in which we can personally limit our food waste and how supermarkets and restaurants can do the same. Such as, buying products from supermarkets that will be thrown away the next day or eating food at home after the best before date – remember the ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates are different. The best before date is only a rough guide but the use by date is shown on food that shouldn’t be eaten past this date for health and safety reasons e.g. meat. But, even some products that surpass the use by date are still perfectly safe to eat e.g. certain fruit, vegetables, and pastries, which means a lot of the food that supermarkets throw away is still edible. More than 10 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted every year in the UK. Despite efforts to decrease this amount through donating food surplus – the number is still off the scales. Supermarkets need to ensure ALL edible food is donated to food banks and homeless people. They could even stock surplus food on the shelves for customers to take for free. There are many great apps which can help limit this issue as well. For example, ‘Too Good To Go’, which allows cafés and restaurants to sell their surplus produce at a discount price. And Olio, an app which helps connect neighbours and retailers, so surplus food can be shared and not wasted – you can often trade with people and get items for free.
Another way we can limit food waste within our home, is meal planning. Only buying the food you need and prepping for the week is a good way to use up everything you bought to ensure nothing is wasted. If you find yourself with spare items in your fridge that you don’t know how to use, you can just throw it altogether to make a soup or casserole. You could even give the items that are safe for animals, to your dog or cat (but make sure to research beforehand) or give leftovers to a friend or family member if you made too much.
Composting is also a great way to recycle your food scraps whilst benefiting the environment – it minimises methane emissions that would have been produced if it were buried in landfills (Primary Industries and Regional Development, 2018). It also acts as a fertiliser, which is useful for those who enjoy gardening. It’s really simple and easy for beginners, all you need to do is create a pile full of equal parts ‘brown’ materials (carbon) and ‘green’ materials (nitrogen). You’ll also need water but it shouldn’t be too wet or too dry (Better Homes & Gardens, 2020). There are plenty of how-to videos and articles online to act as a guide. But, I’ve added a guide to help down below. It’s something that I would like to start myself as well.
Photo credit: urbanfoodgarden.org
“8 million tonnes of plastic enter the sea every year, enough to circle the world 4 times. This plastic pollutes beaches, kills marine wildlife, and degrades into microplastics that enter our food chain. And without big action, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean” – (Turning The Tide on Plastic, Lucy Siegle 2018)
So, what can we do about it?
If you want to decrease the plastic usage in your life, first you need to assess how much plastic you are currently using. If you are one of those people living in blissful ignorance and the idea hasn’t even crossed your mind yet. That’s fine. At least you’re here now. Go take a look around your house or flat and see what you can find – keep an eye out for plastic bottles, wrappers on food, magazines, and toiletry packets. Once you are aware of how much plastic you’re using, it would be useful to write it down and see how often you buy these items. If you haven’t already, you could start by creating a box for recycling your household items, it usually tells you on the packaging whether you can recycle it or not. Or create a new purpose for the things you cannot recycle. Next, think about some replacements you could make for something more sustainable. For example, buying biodegradable wipes, choosing toiletries without microbeads in, opting for bamboo toothbrushes and earbuds, reusable water bottles, straws and coffee cups, glass tupperware, soap bars instead of shower gel, cotton bags for shopping and buying your fruit and vegetables without plastic wrappers. Then try to think on a wider scale – limit ordering food or clothes online to avoid packaging (or order from places where you know they use cardboard / paper packaging) buy in bulk when you shop, grow your own vegetables, take containers to fish and meat butcheries, shop at markets that sell loose items, which is a good way to support small local businesses too. I could go on and on, but you get it by now.
It may seem a bit excessive and you may have items you couldn’t possibly think of giving up. But, this is merely a list of examples, it’s all about starting small. Buy that reusable water bottle. Start recycling if you didn’t already. And then work your way up. A plastic-free life is almost impossible to stick to all of the time, but it’s important to do something at least. You may find it harder if you’re a parent, living with people who don’t share the same values as you, or you’re just clueless when it comes to this sort of stuff. But, speak to your family, research those alternatives, do something now if you care about the future of the planet.
What can UK citizens and the government do as a whole?
Decrease or ban plastic packaging and bags from supermarkets, have a bottle deposit system, beach clean-ups, ensuring all contents of recycling bins are actually recycled, create stricter policy, use plastic in innovative ways i.e. fashion – Adidas made shoes out of ocean plastic in 2018, put pressure on the government through activism and support plastic / waste free businesses.
Other – cosmetics, fashion, and transport etc.
Wait, there’s more? Yes indeed.
It is also important that we are conscious of the cosmetics products we are buying and using such as makeup, shampoo, aerosols, toothpaste, moisturiser, sun lotion, nail polish and soap etc. A lot of the items you use daily include ingredients that bleach coral reefs, pollute the earth, contribute to deforestation and are toxic to aquatic animals (they end up in the ocean after we wash our face, hands or take a shower for example).
Here are some ingredients to avoid if you are wanting to be eco-friendly with your regime (plus some natural alternatives):
- Exfoliating microbeads (made from polyethylene – plastic particles). Used in face wash, body wash and toothpaste. They are toxic to marine life as they don’t degrade or dissolve – using coffee, rolled oats or brown sugar to exfoliate would be a better alternative.
- Silicones – used in moisturiser, hair products and anti-ageing creams (large amounts were found in Nordic regions and detectable amounts were found inside fish, which means it could be contaminating the fish we eat)
- BHA/BHT – Synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturisers, among other cosmetics. They are also widely used as food preservatives. Known to be toxic to aquatic life and have a high potential to bioaccumulate (David Suzuki Foundation, 2020). Rosemary extract is a good replacement.
- Octinoxate Oxybenzone, plus many more chemicals used in sunscreen, which results in coral bleaching. You can find a list here: https://stream2sea.com/ingredients-to-avoid/ Opt for “reef safe” labelled brands instead – Nivea is an affordable option.
- Palm oil – used in everything, from your pizza to your shampoo. It’s a major driver of deforestation – destroying the habitats of already endangered species such as the Orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino (WWF, 2020). Choose ethically sourced palm oil or coconut oil instead.
- Mineral oil / liquid parrafin, and petroleum jelly – found in a lot of products such as baby oil, Vaseline, eczema cream, candles and lip balm. Extracting oil destroys habitats, burning petroluem creates CO2 and mineral oil pollutes drinking water and kills marine life (opt for castor oil, shea butter and soy wax instead)
- Volatile Organic Components – cigarette smoke, aerosol sprays, air freshener, repellents & pesticides, permanent markers – and many other solvents. They produce fine particles that play a significant role in polluting the earth and forming a ground level ozone layer. Limit buying and using these products, choose biogenic options or create natural alternatives for household cleaners.
- Parfum (fragrance) is a type of phthalate – it is toxic to marine life and disrupts our hormones (opt for rose water, lavender essential oil or fragrance-free products, which are also better options for your hair and skin.
- Triclosan – found in hand sanitizer, laundry detergent and deodrant etc. When these are washed down the sink, they can change the biochemistry of fish and other aquatic life – also causes pollution when released into the air. Opt for roll-on instead and use brands that are trisoclan-free, such as Faith in Nature. You can make natural detergent and cleaners from ingredients such as: lemon and tea tree essential oil, apple cider vinegar and baking soda.
I know that was a lot to take in. As I said earlier, it’s all about starting small. It’s difficult to find affordable products that contain no harsh chemicals because even some brands labelled as “natural” contain parfum, silicone or mineral oil. So, ‘natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean better – remember to read the ingredient list to make sure (tip: the ingredients are listed in order of percentage, so the first listed ingredient is what the product contains the most of and the last ingredient listed is what the product has the least of). A great place to start for affordable natural skin and hair care would be Lush, The Body Shop, Botanicals, Noughty, The Ordinary, Faith in Nature, Milk Makeup and Original Source – or DIY your own products from natural ingredients.
Ah, fast fashion. The root of all evil. Well, that’s a bit far, but you get what I’m trying to say. We are all obsessed with buying the latest trends – we didn’t even take a second to consider the impact it’s having on the environment, next thing we know, our wardrobe is full to the brim with clothes we don’t even wear and we are throwing away tops by the dozen. If you didn’t know, fast fashion is “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends”, so think of your high street stores. We are all guilty of this, I used to be a bit of a shopaholic myself due to my love for fashion and styling. Even though, I enjoyed buying second-hand clothes from charity stores (for the vintage bargains) and always donated / sold my old clothes. Sometimes, I’d overindulge, and buy clothes I didn’t even need or want. But, recently I had a massive wardrobe clear-out. So, my goal from now on is to only buy items I really need, choose second hand as my first option and avoid buying clothes from stores such as Primark – the materials are cheap and synthetic (polyester, acrylic and nylon), which are non-durable and bad for the environment.
The global fashion industry generates a lot of greenhouse gases during the production, manufacturing and transporting processes. For example, burning fossil fuels for synthetic fibres, cutting down forests to grow wood-based materials like rayon, viscose and modal, degradation of soil through overgrazing of sheep raised for wool and the massive use of chemicals to grow cotton. The list goes on. Each year, around £140 million worth of clothing is thrown into landfills, taking 200 plus years to decompose and simultaneously emitting a harmful greenhouse gas emission called methane (WRAP, 2018).
But, here are some ways to be more sustainable with your fashion:
- Research & check labels
- Buy second hand or choose vintage
- Sell unwanted clothes on Etsy / Depop
- Donate old clothes to charity or friends
- Learn how to repair your clothes or turn them into something new (DIY)
- Choose ethically sourced and organic materials – support sustainable brands
- Invest in good quality clothes and shoes that will last
- Only buy clothes that you need (ask yourself how often you will wear it before you buy)
- Trans-seasonal clothing that you can wear all year round
(Bazaar – Amy De Klerk, 2020)
Transporation & Energy Usage
Another major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is transport, even though the number has slowly decreased each year since 1990, “UK net emissions of carbon dioxide were estimated to be an astonishing 351.5 million tonnes in 2019” (National Statistics, 2019). The government has promised to reach net-zero emissions by the end of 2050 –
But, what can we do to lower these emissions and save energy within our homes?
- Consider driving less – choose walking, cycling or public transport if and when possible (or buy an electric, hybrid or energy-efficient car).
- Try to conserve water & use less hot water – turn off the tap whilst brushing your teeth, cut down shower time or buy a low-flow shower head, fill up your sink when washing dishes, only do full loads of laundry, wash clothes on a colder temperature and use a timer for your hot water heater.
- Efficient energy sources – energy-saving bulbs, LED lights, solar panels, programmable thermostat, dimmer switches, ceiling fan instead of air conditioning and energy STAR appliances (help cut electricity costs long-term).
- Energy Conservation – hanging laundry out to dry, only putting cooled food in the fridge, use lids when cooking, wash dishes by hand, insulate your home properly and use more blankets during winter – and finally, always remember to turn off lights & unplug sockets when not in use, as most appliances drain energy even when you aren’t using them.
- Choose non-stop flights when flying, because landing and taking off requires more fuel and therefore creates more emissions. Avoid flying business class (the larger the business class area, the less economy seats there are – so, less people on the flight creates a higher carbon contribution per person). Airline companies should also scratch ‘Frequent Flier Programs’, as they encourage people to fly more. And improve engine and fuel efficiency.
- Become more politically active – vote, petitions, protests.
I know it’s unlikely you are going to pop out to buy some solar panels and an electric car. I know some people have no option but to drive to work because of how far they live, buy connecting flights because they are cheaper or use more electricity due to living with more people. That’s understandable. But, there is no excuse when it comes to conserving water, turning off light switches, unplugging sockets and small alterations you can make when cooking and washing up. Everyone can do this. So, it’s time to stop making excuses. And I’m talking to myself too. I’ve learned a lot just by writing this and it’s opened my eyes to the changes I need to make. I hope you will also try to implement a few of the things we’ve discussed today, into your life, so we can both reduce our carbon footprint, conserve our planet and oceans for the future and reverse some of the damage that’s already been done.