For so long in my life, I thought that protecting the environment was someone else’s job -mostly politicians and corporations. I pined for stricter regulations and cheered when land was protected. I put my hopes for the environment in the hands of those making the laws and showed my disdain for environmental degradation at those making “big” damages like oil spills, fracking, and large scale pollution.
But, over the years, I’ve come to two conclusions:
How do we change the world?
Although it’s easy to hold a mirror showing others of their faults, it’s often the most difficult to look into that mirror and accept the faults of the self. In my case, I was looking everywhere for someone to protect the environment while ignoring the steps I should have been taking towards that goal. I mean, how much can one individual impact the environment?
But, it’s not one person. It’s all of us, collectively. From the abundance of lessons I’ve learned from long distance hiking, one is that a little adds up to a lot. For example, if I walk 10-20 miles per day for five months, I will eventually walk from Georgia to Maine. Small contributions towards an end goal took me from one side of the country to another on foot. When it comes to environmental protection, us individually making small contributions and kicking bad habits can collectively add up to a world of difference.
As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
We have Nalgenes for water and HydroFlasks for all other beverages. We do our very best to avoid single use beverage containers. All plastic products will stay on this planet longer than you will. I know I’ve created my own mountain of plastic drink bottles, and I do my best not to let that mountain get any bigger.
This may be a tricky habit to form, but it is time to give up single use shopping bags. My heart hurts when I see them blowing in the wind or stuck in trees. It took me a while after I bought the reusable bags to remember to bring them to the store, but I kept at it to form a good habit. “Grocery store means bring grocery bags.”
You already recycle, right? Cool!! Once I started actively recycling, I realized that a large percentage of my trash was actually recyclable material. Check out the services your city offers for recycling. If there is a charge that you’d like to avoid, see if your city has any public recycling bins that you can bring your recyclables to for free.
Is there any way you can ride share, use public transportation, or ride a bike more frequently? When we were driving outside of Los Angeles, we weren’t surprised with the traffic but were stunned that the large majority of cars had only one person in them. Having a private car is part of the American way, I get it. Consider public transportation when possible.
Ok, I get that people don’t want to waste a pot of coffee, but this K Cup thing is incredibly damaging bringing one little piece of plastic to the pile each time a cup of coffee is brewed. If you love the simplicity of your Keurig, get a reusable K Cup you can load with coffee each time which produces zero waste. We prefer our french press for the same reason. No filters, no plastic, no waste.
Do you need a straw? I know, I know. I prefer a straw because of my sensitive teeth. However, I decided to limit this wasteful habit after learning how often straws are found in the ocean and the damage they cause to marine life. If you need a straw, consider getting a metal reusable one.
Holy Styrofoam hell. Of all of the waste I’ve mentioned, Styrofoam is perhaps the most damaging and hardest product to manage. From single use coolers to to-go boxes and cups, Styrofoam is so widely used but takes 1000+ years to decompose. These convenience products will separate into tiny pieces, blow in the wind, and end up in the ocean. So you got a cup of coffee to-go, you drank that coffee in under an hour, and now that trash is around – somewhere – for centuries after you’ve left this planet. Get a reusable cup, bring a reusable container for leftover food at a restaurant, buy a regular cooler. Notice your Styrofoam use and see what you can do to eradicate this product from your life.
I used to not think twice about food waste. I cooked food for more than one meal, put the leftovers in the fridge, ate some and threw the rest out. Or maybe I went to a restaurant for a couple meals while I allowed some vegetables to go bad in the fridge. Look, this is a hard habit for many of us to break, but learning to not waste any food is not only good for the environment but good your pocketbook too. We’ve saved tons of money by not allowing ourselves to waste any food. It took a lot of energy to get your food to your plate. Think about it. For vegetables ,those veggies were grown, harvested, packaged, and shipped to your store. For meat, veggies were grown, harvested, packaged, shipped to the farm where your animals ate them, animals are slaughtered, packaged and shipped to the store. That’s a lot of energy use simply for you to throw it in the trash because you don’t want to eat leftovers. Not to mention, meat waste doesn’t honor the life of the animal that was taken for your meal. Save some money by putting food waste to rest.
We’ve all found clothing that we didn’t love but was too good of a deal to pass by. We might wear it once, stick it in the bottom of the drawer, and never wear it again. It may seem like no harm since you got such a bargain, but clothing takes a long time to break down in landfills often leaving behind harmful dyes and chemicals. We save money and help the environment by only buying the clothes we need and not continually updating our wardrobes. We also buy a large percentage of our clothes second hand.
Ok, as a nonsmoker, this one is a big pet peeve. Please, I beg you, stop flicking your cigarette butts everywhere. If you’re going to smoke, please please do so in a responsible and respectful manner. It’s no one’s job but your own to properly dispose of cigarette butts, and I assure you, nonsmokers are tired of cleaning up after you. Not only are these an eye sore, cigarette butts also pollute water sources. Consider quitting for your health, your pocket book, and to help the environment. But, at the very least, please pick up after yourself.
Again, I’m not innocent. I have released more than one Chinese Lantern and watched it gracefully fly across the sky. They look really cool. But this is just one more wasteful habit we need to quit. Balloon releases do not honor or memorialize anyone. Your balloons or lanterns do not go to heaven. It may be littering with style, but it is littering and can cause serious damage to the oceans and marine life. If you know about any releases, speak up. We need to recognize the environmental damage from these activities. Check out BallonsBlow.org for more information and some alternative memorial ideas. “Balloons Blow, Don’t Let Them Go.”
Ladies, we produce a lot of plastic waste every month by using pads and tampons. This year, I made the switch to a menstrual cup, and I will never go back. For starters, not having to pay for tampons every month is really satisfying. Menstrual cups are made of medical grade silicone, and the same cup can be used for 5-10 years. The cups have NO leakage and are easy to use once you’ve made the adjustment. You do know that people still die from Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) from tampons, right? I personally know a family that suffered that tragic loss. Is the “gross” factor keeping you from making the switch? I won’t sugar coat it, you get all the bloody details of your period by using a cup. But what’s so bad about getting to know your body that much better. Remember menstrual cups = no waste, no leaks, no monthly expense, no risk of TSS. Consider making the switch.
Ok, I realize this is probably my least popular suggestion, but it also the most powerful thing you can do to protect the environment. Eating meat and animal products daily is really taking a toll on the environment. In fact, the documentary Cowspiracy credits animal agriculture as the number one contributor to climate change, the number one contributor to deforestation of the Amazon, and the number one contributor to dying oceans. I know these sentences are being read by some as laughable, but I urge you to research the effects of animal agriculture on the environment or watch Cowspiracy. While I’d love everyone to hop on the vegan / vegetarian train, I know that’s an unlikely outcome. I do urge you, however, to incorporate more vegan or vegetarian meals into your diet whether that’s Meatless Monday or just a couple meals here and there. Every bit of meat reduction helps the cause. I saved this unpopular thought for last, but it is truly the most important. Take a moment to do some research about the impact of your diet on the environment.
We even went vegan on the trail! Click here to learn about what we ate while backpacking.
(What the Health is another great documentary that shows the health benefits of a plant based diet if you’re interested in learning more.)
Look, I didn’t make all of theses changes overnight, and I don’t claim to follow these rules perfectly all the time. The point is, we’re all in this together and every time you choose to avoid plastics, reduce meat consumption, or whatever else I’ve mentioned, you contribute to a cleaner, greener planet.
I’ve been very lucky to see some of nature’s treasures around the world. Spending this amount of time in nature encourages me to be conscious of the materials I use and how I dispose of them. Remember, when you throw things “away” – well, there is no “away” – it’s just “away” from you. Protecting the environment is all of our job. Let’s keep this planet beautiful.