As a conservation scientist, and someone who has a lot of love for our amazing planet in general, it is important to me to try to minimize my ecological footprint. I recognize that I do not always make optimal choices, but as part of a continuous-learning process, I am working to improve my habits and decision-making. I will share different pieces of and insights from that mission here, as part of the “Action Required” series.
Every single day, we make choices that can either increase or lessen the impact of our existence on the planet. Many of these choices revolve around what we buy, and how we choose to dispose of items we no longer want to keep.
Given the convenience factor, plastics are perhaps one of the most difficult habits to kick, but once you get in the practice of prioritizing alternatives, it becomes easy to turn them down.
While inexpensive to make, most plastics are created from oil, a non-renewable resource. Plastic products have also been shown to harm marine wildlife, including sea turtles, sperm whales and seabirds. Virtually no corner of the earth is left untouched by plastic pollution, not even the Arctic Sea or the ocean floor.
Let this sink in – it is estimated that a typical plastic beverage bottle will take 450 years to decompose if exposed to sunlight. That means if you drink a bottle of water today and toss it in the trash, and if you decide to procreate, the bottle will still be there when your own great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren are born. And for the following six or seven generations, too. In a tightly packed landfill with little or no sunlight exposure, that bottle could be a permanent fixture. A pile of plastic is not exactly what I envision when I think about leaving my mark on this world.
The importance of avoiding plastic whenever possible really hit me when I was traveling in Tanzania for the first time. Landfill services, much less recycling, are not readily available in most areas, so plastic refuse is typically burned or ends up as litter. When you have no choice but to burn your own trash, you become very conscientious of just how much you produce, especially plastic. Toxic fumes are no joke.
Similarly, I think minimizing our reliance on plastic is critical when traveling internationally. When we travel, we are visitors, and it is especially important to me to manage my impact under these circumstances. I don’t think someone else should have to breathe in chemical-laden smoke or encounter litter on the roads because I was too lazy to fill up a reusable water bottle. I have found that I can avoid producing plastic waste, or at least much of it, when traveling just by remembering to bring my own water bottle, requesting tap water in restaurants and eating fresh food. Things do get a little trickier when traveling in places without reliable access to clean water, but bringing your own portable water filter and iodine tablets can be a pretty simple solution – the most difficult part of this is remembering to pack them.
Here are some suggestions to help make your household friendlier to the environment and wildlife by reducing your reliance on plastics:
Reusable bags: Replace all your single-use plastic bags. Get in the habit of using reusable bags instead of grocery bags as well as produce bags and plastic in the bulk-foods sections. I use these mesh bags for produce, and these tight-woven bags for finer bulk-food items, like rice and flour.
Speaking of bulk foods: Bring your own bag to dramatically reduce the need for packaging that will end up right in the trash when you purchase foods by weight in the bulk-foods section. Besides being environmentally friendly, this can also be more cost-effective, as you reduce food waste when you only buy as much as you need.
Pay attention to packaging: Avoid single-pack items, buy concentrated dish soaps and detergent, buy the largest bottles of shampoo and toiletries available, and whenever possible, avoid plastic packaging altogether (for example, by using bars of shower soap instead of liquid soap). Keep an eye out for goods, most commonly dairy products, that come in “use and return” packaging. Fill your meat orders at the butcher counter instead of grabbing pre-packaged products to avoid those plastic-foam trays and cartons. Most butcher counters in grocery stores and all butcher shops will give you the option to wrap your purchase in paper rather than plastic, just make sure to request it.
Avoid takeout meals: To reduce your consumption of single-use products at restaurants, prepare meals at home and bring them to work in reusable containers, or take your time and dine-in at a restaurant. Some restaurants may even be willing to put your takeout into your own reusable containers, just ask when you order.
Pack your own cup: Get in the habit of keeping a water bottle, coffee cup and metal straws with you (in your bag, car or office) to eliminate the need for plastic bottles, disposable cups or plastic straws. An additional benefit – some places, like Starbucks, will give customers a discount on beverages for using reusable drinkware.
Cut out the paper towels: Okay, so it’s not plastic, but this is another way to reduce what ends up in the landfill. I just recently started using washable bamboo towels, and have found them to be really convenient. You can also replace paper towels with cloth rags, or go for something fancier like these Snapkins.
Reuse and recycle: Before throwing out an item, find out if it can be repurposed or recycled. If recycling is the best option, make sure to follow those guidelines. Check out Dunia Designs, a company based in Arusha, Tanzania, that provides some major inspiration when it comes to repurposing and upcycling plastic bags and bottles.