So you’ve cut out plastic bags from your life and are only using reusable totes. Good. You never buy plastic water bottles or even to-go coffee cups, since you have a travel mug and a reusable water bottle. You cut out straws long ago. Good for you! These are all important lifestyle changes to make that do, in fact, make a difference. But what about the plastic cartons that cherry tomatoes and berries come in, or the plastic “clamshells” that carry pre-washed specialty lettuce? Can you never buy baby carrots anymore because they’re literally always in little plastic bags? What about hummus? Or individually wrapped tea-bags? When you start thinking about this–and more importantly, when you start looking in your recycling—you may feel like the only thing you can do that isn’t harmful is to sit inside and donate huge sums of money to Environment Now. In fact, respected environmentalists like Roland Geyer essentially advocate “inaction”: writing for The Guardian, he says “some serious attempts at non-action by all of us would go a long way.”
First of all, you definitely should be donating to Environment Now and the host of other organizations that are fighting for environmental action and justice like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Earthjustice, to name just a few. These institutions are doing important work like funding research on plastic alternatives, food waste reduction, storm sensors, and renewable energy. And if you do any reading about the environment at all—which, at this point, is hard to avoid, since every day seems to hold a catalogue of environmental disasters: Hurricane Dorian whipping the Bahamas and moving up to Florida and the Carolinas as I write; the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest—you’ll quickly feel the absolute urgency of doing something at the same time that you also feel the absolute hopelessness. It can feel like too big a problem for any one person to do anything about. What can my cutting down on straws do to save the millions of people dying in hurricanes? How can my choosing not to put on the air conditioner tonight slow the extinction of endangered species?
But there are things you can do in your everyday life that take into consideration the complications of modern living. And what Geyer means from non-action is less “do nothing” and more “consume less”: “There is no greener packaging than no packaging. No trip is greener than the one we didn’t make. No product is greener than the one we didn’t buy. When it comes to the environment, one of the most powerful and effective paths to sustainability appears to be inaction.” While I’m no environmental expert, here are some things that I have done and am continually reminding myself to do that do, actually, make a difference:
- Change where you shop: Supermarkets and regular grocery stores use way more plastic in their packaging than farmers’ markets, co-ops and CSAs. Also, because of all the unnecessary packaging, you’re often forced to buy more of something (e.g. they’re only selling bags of 4 celery hearts when you really just need one) and therefore contribute to food waste AND plastic waste.
- Change how you shop: Do you really need that pre-peeled orange in a plastic container? Why not buy the loose, organic carrots instead of the bag of baby carrots? Try the beans and rice and nuts from the bulk bins (another reason to shop at co-ops which are more likely than your average grocery store to have bulk food) instead of the canned, bagged or container version of all these. A bonus: bulk food tends to be way cheaper and dried beans have up to 500% less sodium than canned, and soaking beans, which you have to do before you cook dried beans, means you remove a good amount of the gas-producing carbohydrate raffinose. This may take some getting used to: you may be on-the-go and just really want some pre-sliced watermelon. But if you can power through your momentary inconvenience or discomfort, I think you’ll find that it’s worth it.
- Prepare for shopping: I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ll often be on my way home from work and remember that I need garlic or eggs. I won’t have brought my tote bag, and I’ll have to get a plastic bag. If you carry your tote with you at all times, you won’t find yourself in this situation. These bags from BeeGreen are cute and fold up so small that you won’t feel like it’s a burden to be prepared. And when, on those Sundays when you really plan to shop, don’t just bring your totes; bring your empty jars and reusable produce bags so that you can fill them with all the bulk foods and loose produce you’ll be stocking up on!
- Cut down on take-out: Getting take-out is one of the surest ways to create waste. Even if you tell them you don’t want plastic flatware, they will give it to you. And even if they don’t, every single thing you order seems to be individually encased in a little plastic tomb. Does this mean you have to give up your favorite Korean place with the perfect kimchi? Definitely not. But it’s probably not a great idea to be getting take-out so much anyway—just in terms of health. So consider cutting down. And instead of having it delivered, if you’re able to pick it up, reiterate that you don’t want plastic forks and knives, you don’t need a plastic bag to carry it in, and, if you’re really hardcore, bring your own containers! You’ll have to tell them you’re doing this in advance, and not every restaurant will agree, but it’s worth a try.
All of these are small. And you may still be skeptical that any of this can make a difference. But take some solace that the next generation is working on solutions: according to National Geographic, students at Pratt and Harvard are currently designing mushroom and shrimp plastic and sugar straws. And check out Project Drawdown, a research organization that identifies the most viable global climate solutions, that will show you exactly how much impact you can have, and will hopefully convince you that every little improvement helps.