One of the many things that drives me crazy in this increasingly polarized political and social environment is the “whataboutism” that rises whenever someone presents a suggestion for any change intended to make a positive impact. And as we watch fires rage through different parts of our globe, I find this particularly frustrating when normally intelligent and conscientious people discuss changes to personal and social behavior intended to clean up our planet. Instead of suggesting alternative but equally effective solutions to environmental problems that they can see in their local ecosystem, I hear them say:
But what about air pollution and trash entering the oceans from other countries? What about naturally caused wildfires that help to clean up the forests? What about my freedom to pick what car I want to drive? What about my desire to drink every beverage with a straw? And those paper straws are so gross. What about the people who are going to lose their jobs? What about the initial cost to cities and states? What about our free market economy? We can’t have more regulations, even if it cleans up our air and water.
After 40 years of listening to excuses, it seems to me that people want to have a clean environment but they don’t want to do the work or make the perceived sacrifices necessary to get there.
In Shauna Niequist’s book Bread and Wine, she writes about having a garage sale with several friends and using the money to help fund a neighborhood support system that was run by her church. She says, “It’s so easy to think that because you can’t do something extraordinary, you can’t do anything at all. It’s easy to decide that if you can’t overhaul your entire life in one fell swoop, then you might as well do nothing. We started where we could, with what we had…That’s all we can do: start where we are with what we have.”
Inspired by her words, I started to think about the small changes that our family has made, gradually improving our environmental habits. My family is far from a perfect example, but what if we all decided to start where we are and with what we have and pick one or two small changes for 2020? What kind of small life adjustments could make a potentially big impact on our environment locally and beyond?
Produce less waste
Our landfills are overflowing, our beaches are dangerous to human and animals alike, and there is a trash island twice the size of Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We don’t only need clean up, we need to produce less trash. But how?
There are all sorts of places we can start. Whenever possible, avoid using disposable products such as single use plastics and paper towels. Last year I finally stopped using dryer sheets and started using wool dryer balls, saving money and avoiding adding extra waste and chemicals into the environment. I now take one of my three RTIC cups with reusable straws everywhere I go, forgoing the cups at fast food restaurants, the movie theater, and gas stations. I’ve also stopped taking the straw when we go out to eat. It is an environmentally conscious choice that sometimes carries an economic benefit: most gas stations charge less for refills of reusable cups and some eateries, including Starbucks, give a small discount. I’m finally remembering to take my reusable grocery bags with me every time I go grocery shopping, leaving them in the car so I don’t forget. I’ve purchased mesh bags for produce instead of using the thin plastic bags inside the store. And if I’m only getting a couple items, I skip the bags altogether. I do need to be better about having reusable bags set aside for non-grocery shopping, but overall we have significantly fewer plastic bags around our house. Our whole family has committed to buying less single use plastic, using reusable containers of all shapes and sizes for lunches and snacks. When my kids ask for small toys and trinkets, I’m trying to direct the conversation away from being just about finances and more toward environmental stewardship. Trying to figure out a good way to get your family to jump in with both feet? Try the February “plastic cap” challenge, which is committed to buying little to no plastic during the shortest month of the year.
Not everything works for everyone; I firmly believe in composting on principle but since I loathe everything about gardening, I have yet to figure out how to responsibly dispose of food waste. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on ever figuring it out, it just means I’m focusing on developing other habits first. Becoming a zero-waste household is a lot to ask for most families, but every little bit that we do adds up quickly.
Buy recycled products
Making products from recycled materials is not a new concept, but more and more companies are figuring out how to turn trash into attractive and reusable products. Rothy’s and Nothing New produce shoes made from recycled water bottles. (My first pair of Rothy’s just arrived in the mail and they are just as cute and comfortable as advertised.) We bought ChicoBag water bottle holders last summer (they have many other types of bags available), which are also made from recycled plastic. Additionally, the company sells other sustainable products such as bamboo eating utensils. Norwex not only sells eco-friendly cleaning products but they have a complete line of recycled products and they will take back worn out cloths for the sole purpose of recycling them. The company Green Toys produces products from recycled milk jugs. The options for recycled clothing, glassware, outdoor equipment, paper products, and toys just keeps growing.
Honestly, the problem is most of these items are fairly expensive, at least for money-conscious consumers. Remember, while the companies may be turning trash into actual treasure, the research and development to make that happen while allowing them to make a reasonable profit requires significant funds to get started. The reality is the vast majority of us cannot afford to regularly spend more money than we would normally spend on everyday items, even if the more expensive items will last longer and work better than the cheaper ones. Even so, some of us have enough financial freedom to intentionally choose to buy fewer items that we don’t need so that we can pick a few higher quality, eco-friendly items a year that cost more than we would normally spend. That expenditure is an investment in a business that is making a global impact. We are using our money to encourage more research and development that will eventually lower costs for everyone while encouraging more businesses towards similar, less wasteful, pursuits.
And personally, we all could do a better job of recycling more to ensure that these companies have materials to work with.
Spend time outside
The best way to understand the environment is to actually spend time in the environment. So much research has been done on the importance of children spending time outside that there is even a movement that encourages parents to track 1000 hours spent outside yearly. While this may not be possible for all families, even those who consider a Motel 6 “roughing it” can make more of an effort to spend time in outdoor recreation. Visit your state parks and if you can’t stomach camping, consider selecting a state park with a lodge or cabins so the family can spend 24 hours away from technology and plugging back into each other. If you are lucky enough to live in a city with biking and running trails, pack up the bikes and stretch your legs. Visit the local zoo or botanical garden. And if you are blessed enough to live within a reasonable driving distance to one of our nation’s 60+ national parks, go. Support our national parks system and give your family a chance to see the wide variety of the American landscape.
The decisions that we make with our money can make a significant impact on our family budget. Most of us make choices on where we are going to buy the vast majority of items for our household based on immediate affordability. An unfortunate truth is that shopping intentionally is more often than not a privilege of the middle and upper class, but it doesn’t have to be. If more of us shopped intentionally, it would increase opportunities for the majority of those in our communities and beyond.
How can we shop intentionally? Support local businesses. Go to farmers markets or buy from roadside stands. Support new and small businesses. Buy products that both fulfill a need and help a cause. Buy only what you need. When kids come around asking you to make a purchase to help whatever club they are a part of, offer to donate cash instead of buying things you don’t need and don’t want. Look for products that have “fair trade” clearly written on the label and shop at stores that you know are paying their employees reasonable wages for the cost of living in your area.
As consumers we vote with our dollars. More often than not, people perceive that as meaning that we are voting “against” a company when we choose to not spend our money there. But what if we flipped the narrative, instead voting for a company because we want to support their mission, their business practices, or both?
With all of the current criticism directed towards capitalism and our free market economy, what if we made conscious decisions to make our economic system work for everyone? What if we used competition to force companies to waste less, recycle more, and give their employees the opportunities necessary to allow them to go out vote with their own dollars? Change doesn’t have to require a complete overhaul of a system; sometimes it just takes citizens encouraging each other to take those first steps.
Somewhere along the way we became convinced that the only way to make an impact is with big sweeping gestures, but it doesn’t have to be. Just take the time to thoroughly analyze a single action that you can take. For example, my decision to just use my reusable cup everywhere I go seems small, but then I started to do the math. Let’s say that I was consuming an average of three cups of take-out beverages a week (that includes everything from soft drinks to coffee). That is three plastic/styrofoam cups and straws every week. In a single year (52 weeks) that is 156 cups and straws saved. And that is just my trash. That doesn’t include the other three humans in my family, all of whom are doing the same thing as me, using reusable cups and straws on a regular basis.
Look, we are far from a zero-waste family, but we are certainly making a daily effort to do better. It doesn’t have be big. We can all make little changes that make a big difference when added to other little changes. We can’t clean up our earthly home all at once, but God called us to take care of the home that he gave us. Shouldn’t we make a better effort to do what he asked us to do from the very beginning?