It's no secret that the excesses of modern-day consumption are at the heart of the current environmental crisis. Overwhelming demand for cheap, often disposable goods is rapidly depleting the earth's finite resources while filling up landfills, producing air and water pollution, and littering our oceans with chemical-laden, non-biodegradable materials. Environmental advocates and economists alike increasingly recognize that an economy built upon continued growth in consumption rates is fundamentally unsustainable. To truly reduce the environmental impact of our consumption we need to rethink our approach to consumerism altogether.
In Part I of my Eco-Conscious Consumer series I argued the importance of supporting businesses that prioritize sustainable practices and using consumer power to pressure giant corporations to operate in ways that are environmentally responsible. But truly mindful consumption requires more than just picking and choosing the companies we buy from; it requires us to examine how our own consumer behaviors contribute to the environmental crises we face today. Ask yourself: How often do you buy things you don't really need? What did it take to make those things? And what happens to those things when they're eventually discarded?
Here, I'll explore the steps consumers can take toward promoting a closed-loop system wherein the earth's precious resources are used as efficiently as possible. A note of warning: being an NYC resident, many of the services and organizations I highlight are New York-based. New York is far from perfect, but we do have a strong coalition of nonprofits and city initiatives that offer a host of resources for living a low-impact lifestyle. For readers outside the Big Apple, don't hate – investigate! Find out what kind of comparable services exist near you. If the options are sparse, considering using the examples here as templates for your own eco-conscious venture.
Ditch Disposables– What do the guts of 90% of the world's seabirds, a mass twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, and a slew of dead sperm whales have in common? They're all stuffed to the brim with plastics. Though it doesn't receive quite the degree of attention as the devastating effects of climate change, plastic pollution is wreaking havoc on ecosystems worldwide. Perhaps nowhere is this devastation felt more acutely than in our oceans, which serve as the dumping grounds for a whopping eight million tons of plastic per year (PlasticOceans.org).
As Susan Freinkel notes in her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, the popularization of plastic has not been all bad. As a material, it's cheap, durable, and versatile, qualities which have made many commodities significantly more affordable. Ironically enough, celluloid, the first form of plastic to achieve commercial success, was invented in response to concern that demand for ivory would wipe out the African elephant. But since then, plastic has become an ecological disaster. For one thing, plastics don't ever biodegrade – meaning the substances that comprise plastic are never converted into a form that can be decomposed by microorganisms (notably, researchers have discovered plastic-eating bacteria and fungi, but research on these organisms is in its infancy). Instead, plastics simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces, harming marine life and leaching a variety of toxins into the land and water in the process. The devastation plastic pollution has inflicted on marine ecosystems is heartbreaking in its own right, but its prevalence in our oceans essentially guarantees its presence in our own bodies. In 2014 scientists confirmed the presence of plastic contaminants in shellfish cultivated for human consumption, and a 2015 study found plastic contaminants to be present in 15 popular brands of table salt sold throughout China.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of plastics isn't the material itself but our perception of it as being “disposable.” PlasticOceans.org estimates that roughly 50% of plastic produced is used once and then thrown away. As a society, we've become accustomed to plastic bottles, dishware, cutlery, straws, containers, packaging, coffee stirrers, sushi grass, all of which can be easily tossed, sometimes after being used for only minutes. By embracing this disposable lifestyle, we have become complicit in its horrifying consequences.
So what's an eco-conscious consumer to do? Plastics, particularly single-use plastics, have become almost inescapable, and the task of ridding one's life of plastic completely seems virtually impossible. But despite its ubiquitousness (or perhaps because of it) most of us have plenty of opportunities to cut back significantly on our consumption of plastic and other single-use, non-biodegradable materials (I'm looking at you, Styrofoam!). For ten years now, Beth Terry has chronicled her efforts to cease her consumption of plastic products on her blog My Plastic Free Life. She challenges readers to discover their own “plastic footprint” and explore how they can wean themselves from our collective plastic addiction. Her guide“100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life” offers a wealth of innovative tips on avoiding plastics in our everyday purchases. Some of her methods may be easier to incorporate into your life than others, but most boil down to the following principles:
· Bring your own. You're probably already familiar with reusable shopping bags, coffee mugs, and water bottles, but did you know you can also find reusable straws, produce bags, and pocket-sized cutlery? Going out to eat? Bring a reusable container for the leftovers. Life Without Plastic is a great resource for exploring your options for eschewing disposables and phasing out plastics.
· Scrutinize the packaging. Avoid plastic and Styrofoam packaging wherever possible. Opt for glass jars of pasta sauce and olive oil over plastic, cardboard egg cartons over Styrofoam ones. Choose loose produce instead of packaged. When wrapping food at home, use reusable containers or aluminum foil instead plastic cling wrap. If you must use disposable plates, go for the paper kind. And ladies: loathe though I am to advise anyone on how to manage her cycle, the numerous wetland cleanups I've taken part in have turned up a staggering number of plastic tampon applicators. I made the switch to cardboard several years ago and never looked back.
· Buy in bulk. This reduces the packaging-to-product ratio, thereby reducing waste. Avoid individually-wrapped items like juice boxes and oatmeal packets.
· DIY. Making things yourself can help reduce unnecessary packaging. It's also often cheaper and healthier!
How to Recycle (almost) Everything
Part of responsible consumption means having an end game. What will happen to that shiny new object you bought when you one day decide you no longer need it? I remember walking through the halls of my college dormitory as students were moving out for the summer and feeling horrified by the mountains of clothes, books, electronics, furniture, etc., that were being thrown away – not because there was anything particularly wrong with them, but because they weren't needed anymore or students just didn't feel like taking these items with them as they departed. I suspect nearly all of these items could have gone on to enjoy many more years of use, but instead they were being carted off to the landfill. More troubling still was the fact that the owners would likely go on to purchase new replacements for these discards, demanding more raw materials and generating more pollution.
It doesn't have to be this way. Communities across the nation are stepping up their curbside recycling programs a host of commercial and non-profit organizations alike are recognizing the value of repurposing old materials breathing new life into used commodities. While most of us don't have the resources to truly recycle everything,with a little extra legwork we can significantly reduce the volume of materials we send off to the dump.
Functional Items – Often we find ourselves confronted with items that, while still in working order, have outlived their usefulness to us. Toys, books, clothing, appliances, furniture, building materials – nearly every item in usable condition can be donated somewhere or even sold outright. Full service thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army accept a wide range of household goods and furniture in addition to clothing. Yard sales (or stoop sales if you live the city life) are a great option for giving your things a second life and picking up some extra cash in the process. Many community groups host swap meets where participants can drop off their unwanted stuff and grab something new as well.
In New York, city-sponsored initiatives like donateNYC and Materials for the Arts provide resources anyone looking to donate or acquire items ranging anywhere from automotive parts to art supplies; nonprofit GrowNYC regularly hosts free swap meets throughout the five boroughs; BigReuse accepts donations of in-tact building materials, appliances, household fixtures, tools, and an assortment of other items to be sold at a reduced price at one of their reuse warehouses. Even the tricky business of buying and selling gently used furniture – made difficult by the ever-present threat of bedbugs – has been handled by services like AptDeco and Furnishare where professional cleaning, delivery, and pickup streamlines the process and provides peace of mind for buyers and sellers alike.
Broken and Torn - Invariably there will come a time when an item no longer functions as we need it to. Broken furniture, busted electronics, tattered, unwearable clothing, shoes with gaping holes in them – even though these things still contain viable materials, they don't often make the cut for curbside or municipal recycling. There is, however, a growing assortment of nonprofits and commercial enterprises devoted to finding uses for these discards.
We all know that those jeans with the gaping hole in the crotch or the blouse with the giant stain down the front should never be worn by humankind again. Does that make it ineligible for donation to a charity like Goodwill or Salvation Army? Logic may say yes – what good could these unusable items be to a retailer? – but the answer turns out to be more complicated. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, about 80% of materials donated to these and similar charities are then resold to textile recycling companies where the materials go on to become anything from rags to home insulation to carpeting. However, Earth911 recently reported that many Goodwill donation centers no longer accept damaged clothing. If donating to a charity (or even a for-profit bin) seems to be your easiest choice, it's worth calling ahead to ensure your clothes won't simply be dumped.
The other option for old clothes is to go straight to the recycling source. Numerous NYC farmers' markets play host to textile drop-offs, and a partnership between the city's Department of Sanitation and the nonprofit Housing Works provides textile recycling bins to schools, businesses, and residences. Both programs accept clothing and shoes in any condition. Initiatives like this are popping up all over the country, and an internet search of the term “textile recycling” can help you identify a service near you.
A final textile recycling hack involves bedding, the reuse of which, again, is often complicated by the risk of bedbugs. But there's one institution that is almost always in need of things like sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels: your local animal shelter. Condition doesn't matter much – cats and dogs aren't terribly fussy about stains or holes – but it's good practice to wash before donating. Be sure to check with the shelter ahead of time, as policies differ on what shelters are able to accept.
Electronics and appliances can sometimes be trickier to divert from the waste stream than clothes or kitchenware, especially if they're not fully functional. In NYC, unwanted electronics (which are actually illegal to throw out via curbside trash collection) can be donated to the Lower East Side Ecology Center's E-Waste program where electronics are either refurbished and sold at the nonprofit's Gowanus E-Waste Warehouse or stripped for materials and responsibly recycled. Luckily for non-New Yorkers, E-waste recycling centers are common throughout the country, including at big box stores like Staples and Best Buy. For more tips on electronics recycling, check out this handy guide by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.
Finally, there are a few commercial enterprises that have recognized the value of recovering used materials. If you live, work, or play in an establishment that generates a specific kind of waste that isn't eligible for municipal recycling, Terracycle offers a variety of specialized receptacles for hard-to-recycle waste ranging from disposable protective equipment to media storage devices to presentation materials and more. If you have a major job where sorting items for donation and recycling seems too overwhelming, enlist the help of a junk removal service rather than heading straight for a Dumpster rental. These services often go to lengths to either donate or recycle all the items they take and some, like Junk Luggers, which operates in numerous states, will even provide clients with a tax-deductible receipt equivalent to the value of your donated stuff.
Everything Old is New Again
We all need stuff. There's no shame in it. We need clothes to keep us warm (and look fabulous) and plates to eat off of and books to read and shelves to put them on and any number of other things that make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. But does all of that stuff have to be new? And does it all, really, have to be ours to keep forever?
The great thing about many of the programs I explored in the previous section is that not only can you give stuff to them, you can also get stuff from them – in some cases for free, and always at less than you would pay for something new. Swap meets, thrift stores, purveyors of used furniture, refurbishers of busted electronics, warehouses full of reclaimed materials, community forums like Craigslist and Freecycle all offer ample opportunity to reduce our impact on the planet without being deprived of the things we need and love.
The advantages of buying (or swapping) things used are pretty straightforward: we keep existing products in circulation while reducing demand for resources used to generate new products. The options for accessing quality used items and reclaimed materials are expanding by the day. Because I've mentioned several already, and because I trust my readers know how to operate a search engine, I won't waste time listing the services available, except to mention ThredUp, a fantastic online clothing thrift store that I find to be far more user-friendly than its brick-and-mortar counterparts (bonus: they ship their items in paper packaging!). For ladies whose love of beautiful clothes leaves them with more outfits than occasions, Rent the Runway offers anew way to wow in designer dresses without running out of closet space.
Making a Movement
One of the oft-cited criticisms of the conscientious consumer premise is that it promotes a form activism that centers around the individual and therefore stands little chance of being effective. While it's true that one person acting alone won't do much to tackle the enormous environmental problems we face, I've argued that individual consumer decisions can grow into trends and even movements and eventually become the norm. Ideally, the burden of changing the system should not be placed on consumers, but decades of eroding environmental regulations have left the eco-minded citizen with fewoptions but to act as individuals. The challenge, then, is parlaying those individual actions into broader movements and, ultimately, policies.
· Be a nudge. Not a nag, a nudge. Be the person who gives reusable bags, bottles, and mugs as gifts and provides the break room with a good old fashioned coffee pot as an alternative to the wasteful Keurig machine (so many K-cups!). Find moments to express your environmental concerns with family, friends and colleagues and share the actions you're taking to address the problems we face – then invite them on a thrift-store shopping spree! Push for expanded recycling in your office building or apartment complex.
· Start something. Disappointed with the options for swapping, sharing, or salvaging in your community? Be the one who fills the gap. Organize a swap meet. Establish a community refrigerator. Build a Little Free Library. Recruit some folks who are handy with a wrench or a sewing machine and host a pop-up repair workshop or create a fixers collective to encourage your community to repair rather than replace. Feeling ambitious? Follow your entrepreneurial spirit to create your community's own e-waste recovery business or salvage warehouse.
· Share the wealth. The sharing economy has become a catchall term for peer-to-peer networking, but it began with a simple premise: things we use only once in awhile can be shared among a larger community (libraries have understood this concept long before the first app was ever conceived). In 2014 Fast Company proclaimed this vision of a communal world to be dead, but as Jacquie Ottman points out in her article for WeHateToWaste.com, the most effective sharing communities are hyperlocal and often don't even rely on Smart technology. Examples: Toronto's tool sharing library; the necktie loaning program (“Tiebrary”) hosted by libraries in Queens, NY. What can you do to foster sharing in your community?
· Lobby corporations. In her TedTalk, anti-plastic activist Beth Terry shares her experiences with pressuring companies to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging. In one instance a simple request was all it took. Convincing the makers of Brita water filters to expand filter recycling to the United States took more work, but in the end Terry triumphed. Both examples demonstrate the power of the ask. Share your priorities with the companies you patronize, ask them to take specific steps (such as changing their ingredients or packaging materials), and let them know that your continued patronage hinges on their ability to satisfy your values.
· Lobby local businesses. Friendly with some of your local business owners? Consider asking them to make a few small adjustments for the sake of the planet. Ask your favorite coffee shop to substitute wooden coffee stirrers for plastic ones. Suggest the nearby diner adopt cardboard takeout containers instead of Styrofoam. Ask your grocer to offer more loose produce and scale back on unnecessarily packaged items. Beg the pizza place to ditch those little plastic table thingies already.
· Lobby local officials. Arguably the most important step the concerned consumer can take is to become informed and involved with changing policies that allow environmental crises to persist. Become an advocate for municipal services and local policies that discourage reliance on single-use plastics and make comprehensive recycling available to all. Lobby to expand municipal recycling services to include more materials or transition to single-stream recycling. Urge your community to join the growing list of cities, states, and even countries to impose a fee or outright ban on single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging. Propose policies to reduce food waste such as the municipal curbside organics collection program in NYC or the highly popular commercial food waste ban in Massachusetts.
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