How Much Is Enough?
Recently I have been thinking a lot about this statement. It all started with a failed attempt to make my own body lotion. I had all the ingredients and a recipe I pulled from Pinterest. I was excited to not only control what was in the cream I put on my skin but to also save the inevitable plastic packaging that most creams come in. I dutifully melted the shea butter and grated the beeswax and added the essential oils only to come up with a greasy liquid mess. As I poured it into my compost, I asked myself, is this really what I want to spend my time doing? Or, would I rather be growing my business or out taking beautiful photos of nature or meeting interesting people doing bigger things for the environment? How much do I need to do in my life to have an positive impact on the environment? How much time to I realistically have to do it? What areas should I focus on? Air, water or land pollution?
Making my own creams came from the idea of reducing the non-renewable waste in my life. In the past year I have been educating myself on all the ins and outs of a zero waste lifestyle. I think I can safely say that most people are aware of how our waste is polluting the planet, especially the oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating in the ocean has been well documented in magazines like National Geographic and on social media. David Attenborough’s series, Blue Planet II did such a good job exposing the problem that the BBC and the Queen of England decided to ban single use plastics in their buildings. Countries and cities like France and Vancouver have out right banned plastic straws and take out containers. People are starting to finally notice that we have a serious problem. Even my local diner has stopped using straws. But these steps are actually quite small and too slow.
Indeed, it’s now estimated that plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050 if we don’t dramatically change course.
So plastic is evil. Some of it can be recycled, though not much actually is (less than 30% in Canada) and even the plastic that technically can be recycled will often get contaminated by food or plastic bags (26% in Toronto) in the collection process so that it becomes unusable and can only be sent to the garbage dump. Don’t get me wrong, we need recycling but we need to do it right, and we need more facilities that can take on each type of plastic. Every community is different. And recycling is a money making business, not one done out of the goodness of the government’s heart. The minute it stops being financially viable, is when they stop doing it all together. Which is why we can’t depend on it to solve the worlds problems.
We all need to do more to stop the flow of waste because as Annie Leonard says,
(T)here is no “away”. As far as we try to toss a piece of plastic – whether it’s into a recycling bin or not – it does not disappear. Chances are, it ends up polluting our communities, oceans or waterways in some form.
A zero waste lifestyle is one way we as individuals can help.
In a zero waste lifestyle you make sure that ALL of your actions and purchases do not produce anything that can’t be recycled or decomposed. The Zero Waste International Alliance defines it as such.
Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.
Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.
Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.
Essentially to live a zero waste lifestyle you need to analyze every single purchase you make as to its lack of waste by-products. An easy example is shopping bags. Rather than get a new single use plastic bag when you shop, take your own. Same goes for coffee mugs, water bottles, utensils (for take out) and straws and plastic sticks in your drinks. All of these can be managed with a little forethought and planning.
But, once you start looking at how much of what we buy is wrapped in single use plastic this journey gets harder and harder. Vegetables and fruit often have some sort of twist tie, elastic or sticker on them. Meat and cheese are almost always wrapped in plastic to meet health codes or for them to last longer. Buy a screw driver from the hardware store and it is wrapped in plastic, buy something online and it comes either in a single use plastic envelop or in a box with plastic padding. Buy a quick snack of a energy bar or organic juice and it comes in plastic. So how can an individual make this work? This is what the online experts suggest that you do.
- Buy organic produce and bring your own reusable bags to the local market.
- Use Beeswax wrap instead of Saran Wrap.
- If you must buy a drink, buy one that comes in glass vs plastic and recycle properly.
- Buy dry goods in bulk, take your own containers, preferably glass containers.
- Make your own food like mayonnaise, hummus, jam, bread. Don’t buy processed or ready made food.
- Take your own containers to the take out restaurant.
- Make your own health products like body lotion and shampoo or purchase in bulk with reusable containers.
- Buy products that come in the easy to recycle plastic – #1 and #2 and wash properly before recycling. Know what can and can’t be recycled in your municipality.
- Only buy products made of compostable or recyclable materials (like wood, metal, glass, paper, leather, cotton: organic preferably, hemp, bamboo etc,).
Some of these changes just require a little planning and have now become habits in my life. However, others require time and money that I just don’t have. As Renee Peters from the model4greenliving blog states,
I came to believe that living anywhere close to waste-free was therefore only really accessible to those who are privileged in some way. Privileged with either time or money, so you can spend 3+ hours every day preparing your food and exploring for the few waste-free options available.
Buying organic is more expensive both with food and clothing. I can make some of my own food, but I don’t have the time or interest to preserve food and make bread. I’m not ready to become a vegan so I still like to purchase cheese but there are few deli or bulk options in my town. To buy in bulk I would have to drive 45 mins to the closest store causing air pollution along the way. And I have yet to see one example of a place that sells bulk biodegradable shampoo, conditioner or soap even in big cities closest to me. These places may one day exist but right now the best I can do is buy natural products in plastic that hopefully, can be recycled.
Living a truly eco-friendly zero waste lifestyle, is not only about buying less and buying smarter, it’s about understanding the whole product lifecycle otherwise known as cradle to cradle.
Cradle-to-cradle simply goes beyond dealing with issues of waste after it has been created, by addressing problems at the source and by re-defining problems by focusing on design. The cradle-to-cradle model is sustainable and considerate of life and future generations.
As you can imagine, applying these rules of purchasing can be exhausting simply because the options for this type of product are extremely limited. These products simply don’t exist on a mass scale. In big cities you might find a couple of zero waste stores. A big chain grocery store “might” have a no plastic isle. Much more common are the chains like Walmart and Dollarama that are filled to the gills with cheaply made plastic goods imported from China. I am motivated to make changes in my life but most people are not. How are we going to really make change in the amount of waste we produce? By going after the producers of that waste.
Annie Leonard, speaks to this issue in this article in the Guardian.
We will continue to do our part, but it’s time for the world’s largest corporations to do theirs. Some 322m tons of plastic were produced in 2015, and that number is expected to double by 2025. The good news is that we are at a turning point. All over the world, people and businesses are waking up to the dangers created by single-use plastic. Now, we must demand a new era that prioritizes people and planet over profit and convenience.
She and her charity are calling on a new movement to #breakfreefromplastic. It calls for not only picking up that plastic waste but for photographing the name of the company on the waste and shaming them to make change.
As I pick up plastic off the beach in my area all the time, this is something I can do. Is it enough? I just don’t know. I have been amazed at how in just a short time the awareness about plastic waste issues has taken off. People can make change when actions are taken en masse. Awareness is the first step. Buy less, buy smarter, tell your friends to do the same.
Most importantly, recycle properly and make what you have time for but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it right all the time. Let’s turn our energy outwards and stop the production of plastic at the source.