The Earth + Plastic
October 2, 2019 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Although I tend to agree with the late George Carlin's thoughts on the matter in the bit referenced in the headline, I would still like to attempt to save the planet/the human habitat. Or at least do my part not to kill it/us. So far, I try/do the following:

1. I recycle - although it seems a lot of packaging can't really be recycled due to contamination/form/etc. Plus I hear it was being shipped to places like China anyway which are not taking it now and a lot is being incinerated. So I dunno. I still do though.

2. I don't fly a lot. At all. Two flights in 6-7 years and that's the norm.

3. I try to take my own reusable bags to the grocery store. Although for buying veggies, it still seems like I get like 4-5 bags :(

4. I keep my ac thermostat at 80 in the summer, 85 when I am not home, and I live in South Texas. It does go to 73 when sleeping though.

5. I hardly ever water my lawn. I use only the cold setting when washing clothes. I try to be mindful of water use.

6. I don't buy a lot of "stuff". I generally live minimally but it's pretty easy since that's my natural bent anyway.

7. I do drive a decent amount. There is a lot of space here in my part of Texas and everything is very spread out and not pedestrian friendly. Mass transit where I live is not good. To take the bus, a normally 20 min trip will take 2 hours. This is based on actual experience although I have not taken the bus in about 10 years due to this experience. I drive a Camry. So not a Prius, but not a Navigator either.

What else should I be thinking of doing? What actions give me the best "rate of return" on my efforts? Is there anything us regular folk can do that realistically will help? Is all hope lost?
posted by WinterSolstice to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You can get involved in local politics to help push the emphasis on things like responsible recycling, local water usage restrictions, things that encourage businesses to use compostable and renewable materials in their packaging.

You can get rid of your lawn entirely - if you live in a HOA neighborhood you can fight that HOA to make lawns non-mandatory or even require xeriscaping - if you don't have an HOA to contend with you've got even less reason for a lawn, work with a local nursery to find the folks who specialize in indigenous plants and xeriscaping to keep your yard from needing water at all. If you're near my parents in San Antonio there's some incredibly gorgeous examples of xeriscaping in a variety of neighborhoods. In addition to helping reduce water waste this makes small habitats for local wildlife.

You can use reusable mesh bags and bring small paper or cloth bags for produce in the grocery store, in addition to larger grocery sacks. I've heard that it's probably better to reuse plastic things as much as possible first instead of chucking them and buying new non-plastic items like glass containers and such, so you can save wash and reuse a lot of plastics for a while to keep them out of the system.

You can change your diet to include foods that are more efficient to grow, including eating a lot less beef than a typical South Texas diet probably includes, and aim for local foods that have taken less gas to be transported to your location. Supporting local farms also encourages a lessening of food desserts, boosts local business and encourages responsible farming practices.

There's tons of small things you can do, and plenty of bigger ones, too. I don't think all hope is lost, but I think lifestyle changes are inevitable. You have a good head start on a lot of them. Probably engaging with local politics and getting your voice heard is going to be one of the most widely impactful, though. Being that person who fights for, say, much better public transportation, is going to be hard but is desperately needed.
posted by Mizu at 6:47 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

It’s a myth that local foods necessarily take less energy to transport. Thirty local farmers taking their apples to market can end up using more energy than a single grower transporting a massive number of apples from a distance. The possible environmental value of using local food is very complicated to determine. More here.

As the article notes, beef and dairy are massively wasteful to produce. Reducing or even eliminating those is one of the most effective ways for an individual to make a difference.
posted by FencingGal at 7:55 PM on October 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

I carry my emptied produce bags in my shopping bags and reuse them in store (relabeling as needed), up to about ten times. That’s ten fewer bags per veg purchase. I also carry cutlery in my car so I can turn down plastic utensils whenever possible.
posted by Riverine at 7:55 PM on October 2, 2019

Airconditioning use: Try using fans in addition to AC and see if you can increase the night time temp setting a few degrees or shut off the AC entirely while you are not home. The different in electricity consumption of a fan and a window AC unit is huge (let alone whole house AC), and since air conditioning has to put the hot air somewhere, it pumps out hot air outside your house. Suburban residents may not notice the difference, but in urban environments it is super obvious when neighbors are running their AC, even at night.

Arizona State did a study that found at night, "heat emitted from air conditioning systems increased the mean air temperature by more than 1 degree Celsius (almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit) for some urban locations.”
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:40 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Airconditioning is also an area of energy consumption that is only going to get bigger, especially as temperatures rise. From the International Energy Agency, "Global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050, requiring new electricity capacity the equivalent to the combined electricity capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan today."

Given that the U.S. residential usage of AC is also increasing, I've stopped running AC at home entirely. This summer there were weeks when daytime highs went to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. LA's desert climate meant that if I just avoided staying at home in the hottest days, I could come home in the evening, set up a bunch of box fans in the windows and cool down the apartment relatively quickly. I usually hung out at the library, figuring that public institutions and whatnot will be using AC regardless of how many people are in the building, so I might as well benefit from that and cut out my home usage.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:48 PM on October 2, 2019

Reducing your consumption of animal products would make a very big impact. I would definitely recommend avoiding beef, pork, dairy and seafood. If you want to continue eating some animal products, then chicken and eggs would probably be the lowest impact.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 3:02 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you want your efforts to have impact, support societal initiatives that change the behavior of people and systems, while preparing society for the inevitable, serious problems that we as a species face.

Personal action solely on your own activities is not the most effective use of your time if you actually want to achieve results.
posted by lalochezia at 4:04 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Our biggest individual impact on the environment is through things we can't change as individuals. Work with local organizations and politicians, or national ones, to make change at the policy and practice level.
posted by spindrifter at 5:21 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

You can try buying less, and buying in bulk, and buying things that are in better packaging to reduce your waste. For example buying a fifty pound paper sack of potatoes results in less waste than buying five ten pound bags of potatoes. Of course you have to have a cool place to store the potatoes and be sure that you will use all fifty pounds in time.

You can try to reduce the number of cleaning products and chemical products that you use and wash down your drain. Vinegar and baking soda are very biodegradable cleaners. So is bleach, but bleach is toxic to use so must be used with care. See if you can dilute your cleaning products and use less quantity of them, and look for information on what ingredients are most environmentally awful and avoid them.

You can try to reduce the number of fossil fuel transit miles you are responsible for. If you have friends you can ask, try to do your errands with your friends. If you both/all go to the same grocery store and different shops at the same mall in one errand only one car is necessary, and that fifty pound bag of potatoes above can be turned into two twenty-five pound lots of potatoes. How would you manage if you could only take one trip with the car, per day, on days when you are driving to work? Would doing this reduce your total miles driven? Can you bring housemates with you so they do their errands at the same time? For example, your kids might be willing to hang out after school and do extra-curriculars or work at the library, or hang out with friends, and take your vehicle home with you. You could also check if you have any co-workers who live in your area who would car pool to save miles driven. There might be someone who would bike to your house, leave their bike there and ride with you and give up their own car commute.

Do an analysis of all the things you do and all the garbage you produce in one day and look at each item and think about the alternatives. For example if you grab a coffee at Starbucks on your way to work that requires just a little bit more driving, and the use of plastic cups and lids. Can you stand the office coffee? Can you fill a travel mug with coffee to bring with you? Don't forget that if the coffee stop is an oasis from traffic and a transition period you need to replace that time too, not just the coffee. If you take a shower every morning look at the hot water use, and the personal care products you use - could you just dunk your hair under the hot water tap and use a wet rag on the smellier bits of your body while standing up in front of the sink? You might use just as much water dunking your head, and giving yourself a quick swipe, so the change would not help. The idea is to look at each thing in turn and see if there are positive things you can change that would add up to improvements, not to be ashamed of your cup of coffee or your hot shower.

Can you do anything for your neighbourhood that would reduce its ecological footprint? Can you plant some trees? Contact your municipality to ask them what steps they are taking and what their tree planting program is. Remember planting trees improves the property values. If your neighbourhood is spread out with lots of lawns and such it means longer driving, but it also means that your opportunities for composting and community gardens goes way up. If you live in Texas you might be able to grow something locally. There are bound to be some weeks when the ground isn't frozen hard and it can be watered with your bathwater, assuming that you have reduced your cleaning products to ones that aren't harmful for the environment. Let your municipality know that you strongly support allowing people to keep chickens and rabbits and other such backyard meat animals, and if your neighbours have a rooster, learn to enjoy the sound of it. Even if you can't garden or keep chickens yourself, you can try and support your neighbours in this. A tiny tomato and cucumber growing operation would stay viable, if you and your neighbours all paid for a share of the produce. If it's a cooperative, a couple of evenings a month would be a reasonably easy work contribution.

Can you compost? Can you plant fruit trees?

All hope is always lost. The planet will someday definitely be destroyed and you will definitely dead. But how bad the next few years will be is up in the air completely, and no matter how it goes, you can either live these next years well, ethically and with happiness, or live them badly, angrily, and destructively. The planet and mammalian life may have another few million years, so there is a LOT of time you can still buy by doing what you are doing. Simply by asking your question you are providing hope that the rest of your lifetime at least, will be one where good things are done for the environment and people band together in community to do everything it is possible to do. There is a great deal that us regular folk can do, and you are doing the most important thing, which is finding out what you can do. And what you can do is not be swayed into hating your neighbours, and going ahead with your project of protecting and making your world better, tinkering with your project and refining and learning what is working and what could work better.

Probably the second most important and effective thing you can do is canvas for green causes. Canvasing is the most effective way of getting people to support green causes. You don't just vote or write letters to politicians who have already been bought by someone with deeper pockets than you, you make sure your neighbours know that there are a lot of us out there who care about these things. But canvasing - going door to door and being visible in your community is scary, and most people won't do it. So the first step in that is looking for a canvasing buddy, or buddies, and supporting other people who are already putting themselves out there and looking vulnerable when they speak up, or demonstrate, or go door to door, or talk to strangers. Write and thank the people who are canvasing or being activists. Donate your time, not your money. Join your neighbourhood association and coax it toward green initiatives instead of hate-your-neighbour racism initiatives. For the sake of your mental health, aim towards doing these things out of love, rather than fear, out of hope rather than guilt and as things that you enjoy doing. If you are miserable you can't sustain these things, so find ways to make them a source of joy.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:18 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

As FencinGal mentions it is difficult to determine the environmental advantage of local vs. large scale food production and purchasing but there are other reasons to favor locally grown/manufactured items. I think it was this book (many years ago) that introduced me to the idea that prosperity increased when money circulates locally, the longer the better. Buying from distant sources or companies owned outside the local economy just sucks the money out without contributing to the finances of people or local government.

Buying local also ensures that these producers stay in business which increases resiliency in the case of external disruption. It could be a financial, trade or transport link that breaks and in our complex economy would cause shortages. Climate disruption of farming like the Midwest floods this year could also be reduced in impact if local producers can replace some of the food but they can't do it if they are out of business.

Local food is also usually fresher.
posted by Botanizer at 7:30 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Some things that make a difference (you probably already do some or all of them):
- Buy less clothing, repair stuff instead of throwing it out, swap with friends, buy second-hand
- Don't wash them more often than you need to. Most of the time, pants do not need to be washed after a single day of wearing
- Use less detergent when doing laundry, many people use two times what is needed, so see whether half as much gets the job done
- Line dry whenever possible, the dryer makes your clothes wear out so much faster, apart from the energy it consumes. Sunlight desinfects, de-odorizes and even bleaches out some stains!
- Make vegetable bags out of mesh fabric (leftover sheer curtain fabric is a good source) and bring them to the store to come home with fewer plastic bags. Drawstring bags are easy to make and convenient to use. Bonus: you can wash your veggies inside the bag and hang them up to drain!

While it's true that our individual actions make a very small difference, I feel that that's a bad reason not to do what we can. It's contagious and it all adds up.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:26 AM on October 3, 2019

Live somewhere that minimizes driving. In my area, that means living in a small town that lets me walk to almost everything and bike the five miles to work. In your case, it might mean living as close as possible to the place you drive to the most, whether that be work, a shopping center, your mom's, etc.
posted by metasarah at 10:14 AM on October 3, 2019

I went vegan about 15 years ago, and I think it's one of the best things I ever did. Making the change was easier than I expected it to be. I did it mainly because of animal-related issues, but there are also substantial benefits to the climate.
posted by alex1965 at 10:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I read something recently that said that industrial agriculture (livestock, I'm looking at you) and industrial fishing are top causes of climate change.

Toilets are the #1 water waster in a typical US household. There is new international code (IAPMO WE-STAND Green Supplement) supporting site-built compost toilets (Humanure Handbook). I live in a major US city, and I don't pee in my drinking water, and it feels pretty good.
posted by aniola at 10:09 PM on October 3, 2019

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