It's easy to go through life unaware of your affect on the environment. Our habits and tendencies, like using Ziplock bags or paper towels, are deeply engrained. And it's easy to forget that pollutants are everywhere and nearly impossible to avoid. This had never been so evident to me as when, earlier this year, I decided to pay attention to my plastic usage. I had always thought I was conscious of this matter, but after those two weeks of observation, I realized I still had a long, long way to go. I was pretty horrified by the amount of plastic I encountered and used in a given day. While that feeling was discouraging, it also helped open my eyes to the impact of my actions — and the impact of seven billion other people living on planet Earth who were also perhaps blissfuly unaware of their consumption.
After this, I came to recognize my responsibility as a free-thinking, intelligent inhabitant of this planet, and the responsibility we all have in the choices we make every day. It's easy to find a false sense of security when you hear about more and more companies taking environmental initiatives that theoretically create a big impact on the environment, but we cannot just sit back and wait for them to take effect. Starbucks eliminating their use of straws does not count as your contribution — that's theirs. We all have the responsibility as individuals to do our part, and putting it on someone else is simply a cop out. I'm not saying you need to start using reusable toilet paper and never touch a Ziploc bag again, but rather that it's imperative you are conscious of your actions and make changes where you can. We absolutely do have the power to make a difference, and it's our responsibility to do so.
Looking at the current state of our planet and the path it's on is beyond overwhelming — it's depressing. When you start uncovering the facts, like how temperature has increased by 2 degrees and precipitation by 5% over the last 50 years in the US alone, it can get pretty scary. While some people use fear as a motivator, most of us (myself included) tend to shy away from the matter. For this reason, an all or nothing approach is not sustainable. We must realize that while one person does not have the power to save the entire world, they do have the ability to improve it. Instead of thinking on a large scale, think small — think about your daily life. As I did with my plastic usage, observe your actions and then ask yourself where you can improve. I think you'll be surprised to find that it doesn't have to be as difficult, or as extreme, as you think.
A way to start is by picking three concrete things you can do. Sometimes simply vowing to improve is too broad, so this approach will help you stay on track. The options are practically endless, but we'll give you a few examples to get the ball rolling.
1. Stop using single use cups and bottles. Are you ready for a terrifying fact? 16 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year, and that's just coffee cups alone. If you're someone who stops to grab a coffee or tea everyday, bring your own reusable cup. Even for someone who buys a coffee five days a week, that's saving 260 cups a year. Yes, that seems small when you compare it to 16 billion, but imagine if 100 people adopted this new eco-friendly practice — now we're up to 26,000 cups saved. Now imagine even more. Pretty cool, right? Same goes for water bottles. Unless you're in a bind, don't buy water at a store. With so many awesome reusable bottles, there really isn't an excuse to not use one.
2. Reduce your meat consumption. Did you know that the meat industry is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions due to the amount of resources required for production and distribution? I eat meat, but I've cut back in my effort to help. Raising animals for food uses 30% of the entire Earth's land, and when you think about how much of our planet's land is actually suitable for agriculture, it truly shows the magnitude of this industry. Further, producing meat requires an enormous amount of water. For example, for one kilogram (equivalent to just over two pounds) uses 40 times more water for all stages of production compared to the same amount of vegetables. The list goes on. When I purchase meat, I try to buy from local farmers as much as possible due to the fact that it has a smaller environmental impact. Try cutting out meat for at least one meal two to three times a week and see how you feel. There are a ton of delicious meatless recipes out there, so you may even find something new you like.
3. Stop using plastic bags. Some cities have banned plastic bags, but there still many that have not. If you live in one of those places, or even if you don't, stop using plastic bags all together. This is pretty much a no-brainer because it's so easy to do. Buy some reusable bags, and use them — it's that simple. From what's required to make the bags (12 million barrels of petroleum oil are used yearly to produce plastic bags in the US alone), to their pollution to our environment and the animals and organisms living in it, I think it's clear that plastic bags are a big no-no.
Those are just three examples, but there are many other things you can do such as switch to paperless billing, unplug electronics when not in use, be stricter with how you set your thermostat, and compost. In fact, it's easy to do all of them!
A lot of our responsibility to the environment boils down to a foundation of education. You don't have to be an expert on the issue, but learning the facts is an important first step to bringing change. When you know the effects of your actions, it allows you to be conscious and mindful in your decisions. In this situation, knowledge is power and choosing ignorance should not be an option. In the meantime, it's important that we do not judge those who don't know as much about the matter, or who do things we don't agree with, but rather that we lead by example. Instead of ridiculing a friend who always uses plastic bags for storing leftovers, kindly show them how a set of glass food storage containers will work just as well. We'll never be perfect, but we should all strive to do our best and educate others along the way.
It's easy to think that saving the environment is someone else's problem, but it's not — it's everyone's. Whether you're the CEO of a multi-billion dollar coffee chain or work part-time as a barista should not matter, because we are all equals in being inhabitants of this planet. While I strongly believe companies and corporations have a massive responsibility to preserving the environment, I also believe we, as individuals, do too. Championing for change on a large scale is great, but each of our daily actions count for something too. We all have the responsibility to do what we can — and that's a fact that's simply too important to ignore.