Top 10: Ways to Slash your Ecological Footprint
Now that the Limits to Growth study has finally been vindicated1 (it only took 40 years!) the time is well and truly ripe for a comprehensive review of our collective and personal ecological footprints.
While many organizations and initiatives are working to bring about large-scale change for a sustainable future – and even more are working on tweaks to the existing system within the pro-growth framework – it can be easy to lose sight of one’s personal role in keeping within our planetary boundaries. Of course individual or consumer action certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of sustainability action, but there are some areas where it’s just a no-brainer to change our habits, and it costs us little to nothing to do so.
A scratch to the surface of our everyday habits reveals a wide range of things we could all be doing better, and it’s not just a matter of switching brands within a ‘green consumer’ paradigm – less is most definitely more where our ecological footprint is concerned. Here are SHIFT’s Top 10 footprint reduction measures we can all implement…
Living it large has been the default in much of the western world for a long time, and our living spaces keep getting bigger and more energy-intensive to maintain, which all leads to a larger per-capita footprint than is necessary. But the growth of the tiny house movement poses an ironic twist that looks set to stick a spanner in the works of boundless consumption. 2
The really good news is that you don’t have to buy a patch of land and build a new home in order to live tiny. According to Jay Shafer of the Small House Society, “A tiny house is any house in which all the space is being used well.” The focus is on smaller per-capita living spaces and simplified living – so co-housing and house-sharing options can be just as tiny in practice as cramming your life into a shed or shipping container.
Re-think the little luxuries
Some folks insist they can’t start the day without coffee, while others extoll the virtues of relaxing with a stiff drink.
Coffee production, even the fair trade variety, generates large volumes of polluted wastewater, and deforestation for the sake of coffee plantations is not unusual. 3 But if forgoing your morning cuppa is not an option for you, low-footprint shade-grown coffee is forest-friendly, and the natural vegetation is protective against pests, reducing or eliminating the need for chemical inputs. 4
When it comes to booze, the production of your favourite tipple is a water-intensive process, and shipping all those heavy glass bottles whacks a fair bit onto your carbon footprint. 5 Wine is worse than beer on both counts, but spirits are the most energy-intensive to produce, and nearly all the water used in their production is wasted. Best in moderation, as we well know, alcohol should be enjoyed as an infrequent luxury only, and it’s ideal to opt for small-scale, locally-produced brands that make a point of using traditional methods in their production and recycled materials in their packaging. And we hear that making your own brews can make you pretty popular!
Don’t be a fashion victim
Aside from the obvious issue of sweatshop labour in the production of most clothing there are far-reaching environmental implications of keeping up with fashion. Growing cotton, for example, is particularly damaging. Insecticide use on cotton plantations contaminates water sources and impacts biodiversity. Organic, although better, is still damaging as cotton is a water-intensive crop – it can take 2,700 litres to produce just one cotton shirt, which is enough water for a human to drink for 900 days. 6
Wearing alternative fabrics is a good start, but watch out for greenwashed items such as bamboo fibre. Although it’s organically grown, the processing required to make it a soft fabric uses toxic chemicals. Some of the better options include linen and, yes, hemp. 7 More creative than conscious fabric choices are second-hand shopping, swap-n-share parties, and simply learning to mend or upcycle old clothes that can look and feel great again with just a little TLC.
The transport sector accounts for around 15% of CO2 emissions, and that’s just the start of it. 8 The manufacture of vehicles (including electric ones) – including resource extraction and parts production – and the building and maintenance of transport infrastructure impose a hefty toll on the environment. Flying, as is well known, is the worst CO2 emitter per kilometer, weighing in at 5% of the total, so make your trip worth the travel, if you must fly. 9
For day-to-day transport, two wheels are better than four, and non-motorized is even better. Yes, that means push-bikes. And rumour has it walking is also good for your health. If you must drive, make fuel efficiency a priority – small is beautiful when it comes to cars. Keeping to the speed limit saves a little on emissions while also protecting your hip-pocket, and make sure you fill up your seats! Car-pooling is easy to organize, and with a little hunting around, you’ll even be able to find lift-sharing options online.
But personal travel doesn’t account for nearly as much of the total as trucking and shipping of consumer goods, so here’s where buying local and lightweight becomes really important.
Re-wild your space
With biodiversity loss the most dire of our breached planetary boundaries, conservation is now a matter of emergency. World-renowned naturalist and TV personality David Attenborough has issued a call to action for people to reclaim all available space for biodiversity conservation. 10 Wildlife parks and nature reserves are no longer sufficient to stave off the sixth great extinction; we need to pull out all the stops.
With Attenborough calling for the use of even suburban gardens and roadside verges for biodiversity conservation purposes, the average Joe can make a difference by cultivating spaces that are welcoming to a wide variety of wildlife. Lawns and paved patios will have to go out of fashion as they are replaced by bee- and bird-friendly vegetation that bolster the presence of the critters critical to the web of life.
Cut out chemicals
Chemicals have become a standard aspect of everyday life in the modern industrial world, but some of these things ought never have been produced due to the damage they can do and the length of time they linger in the environment. The hazard warning symbols on packaging should be a bit of a giveaway, yet somehow these products are still legal. It’s not even mandatory yet to list the array of toxic substances in everyday household items, much less the harmful effects they have on us – and the damage they do to our water systems when we rinse them down the drain. 11
The obvious place to start eliminating chemicals would be with household cleaning products. These days there are lots of chemical-free alternatives on the market, and recipes for making your own litter the internet with a dubious array of concoctions – some of which work well. 12 You can even grow and make your own loofah sponges for the scrubbing bit – it’s fun and easy, we promise! 13
Say no to plastic
It may be everywhere in our lives today, but petroleum-based plastic has only been around for a few decades. Almost every piece ever made is still somewhere in existence today, and much of it will be around for centuries more. 14% of the most toxic industrial releases – such as styrene, benzene and trichloroethane – are emitted by the plastic industry, 14 and much of our plastic waste makes its way into the oceans where it does immense damage to marine and bird life. 15
The easiest way to address the issue is to simply say no to plastic. Alternatives to single-use plastic items such as bags, drinking bottles, and takeaway coffee cups are readily available, and unnecessary items such as drinking straws ought not to be used at all. For those ready to take a step further, the web is full of advice on plastic-free living, and some of those tips and tricks will really cause you to rethink consumption! 16
Eat to live, not live to eat
Tackling diet is an often-controversial topic for footprint-conscious citizens, and there are as many different attitudes to food as there are delicate sensibilities to offend. However, the overarching consensus is relatively common-sensical: simply put, a healthier diet and reduction in food waste take a great deal of strain off our over-stressed global food systems, in turn alleviating stress on climate, biodiversity, freshwater, forests and soils. 17
The most efficient – hence sustainable – way to consume calories and nutrients in most parts of the world is simply to eat lower on the food chain; consume local, seasonal produce; and favour whole foods over processed foods. Cutting down on meat, dairy, sugar, junk food and pre-packaged snack foods improve the health of the biosphere as well as our bodies, and healthy levels of consumption limit diet-related disease as well as ecological impact.
Don’t be an e-waster
Many of the gadgets we’ve come to rely so heavily on – particularly our computers and smartphones, are a nightmare for the environment from extraction right through to disposal. Cellphones and computers rely on rare earth metals such as gold, silver and platinum, and thus drive extractive industry.18 Most mining processes lead to the pollution of land and water around mines and production plants – with toxins as insidious as mercury and cyanide – killing vegetation and wildlife, and harming workers and other people in the community. 19
The bad news is that the extraction of most metals and minerals produces similar environmental impacts, and there are currently no known substitutes for the components of our gadgets. 20 The even worse news is that most e-waste is either landfilled, where its toxins leach into soils and water, or incinerated, where its toxins pollute the air. Perhaps the worst news of all is that solar PV panels are some of the worst culprits. 21
Forgoing gadgetry is a big ask for pretty much everyone, so the next best thing is to limit your consumption of gadgets to what you really need, and only upgrade items when what you’ve got is on its last legs. Don’t buy into the hype around flashy new consumer goods.
Green your home
It sounds obvious, but most people have a way to go with really running an energy-efficient household. It’s one thing to stick PV panels on the roof and then forget about the fossil energy that made the grid network you’re connected to even possible; it’s quite another to cut your energy usage to the point where its source is a moot point.
Weatherproofing is your first port of call. Insulation, double-glazing, and caulking the draughty gaps will save on heating and cooling bills. 22 If you’re in a position to do so then passive solar heating, rainwater catchment, and grey water recycling are well worth the effort. Solar water heaters are efficient and can even eliminate the need for wasteful electricity usage for the sake of hot showers. Of course, energy-efficient and water-efficient appliances are a must, but it’s also worth considering which appliances you really need – it’s really not that hard to get by without dishwashers and clothes driers.
And don’t forget your garden – with a little time and effort it can be a carbon sink, a haven for local wildlife, and a source of food.