My social media feeds are often full of photographs of beaches, parks and beauty spots being treated like dumping grounds by people out ‘enjoying’ the great outdoors. I find any defilement of the environment heartbreaking but these incidents of mass pollution are particularly soul destroying. It is a harrowing reminder of the destructive capacity of our species but the issue isn’t just the litter left behind by folks out on a jolly. The issue is the waste that all of us create every year, around a tonne of it per person here in the UK.
We need to realise that our current consumerist culture is unsustainable, generating vast amounts of waste, causing untold ecological damage and also impacting our own species. Many of the “cheap and cheerful” goods we so easily throw away come with the cost of cruel working conditions or sketchy supply chains and communities forced to live on land polluted by the waste of other nations sent away to be “recycled”. Out of sight, out of mind. It is easy enough to post an outraged comment on social media about how awful it is to see people leaving rubbish on Bournemouth beach (“Outrageous!” “Vile!” “Name and Shame!”) but do we stop and think about our personal impact on the Earth? It is not a comfortable conversation to have with yourself but it is a vital one.
I consider myself to be an environmentally and ethically aware person these days but I had times in my life where that was not the case. To this day, I find myself resisting the urge to buy things on Amazon because it’ll arrive neatly on my doorstep the next day, have bought shrink wrapped avocados because i was hankering for guacamole (triply awful with the considerations of food miles and deforestation) and when I was a student I bought a lot of cheap clothing which was only worn a handful of times before it ripped and I didn’t think about mending them.
These days I try to be as ethical as I can be with my consumption and waste production but I am far from perfect. I aspire to be like the eco influencers you see who can fit all their yearly waste in one jar, live a minimalist utopian life and can keep all their houseplants alive. But I am not. I am a 26 year old on a small income living in the city, trying to do her best… and my cat eats my houseplants. I beat myself up frequently at not being ‘green enough’ and get demotivated and demoralised. But herein lies the problem.
When you become aware of awful large scale global crises, like climate change, the impending mass extinctions or waste production, the realisation is often accompanied with a sense of existential dread. How can one person ever possibly make a difference? What could I possibly do which could help change this? What’s the point in trying? We all get bogged down and make no changes because we feel powerless. But, dear friends, this is not the case.
On the Berlin Wall are painted the words “Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world”. This sentiment strikes at the very heart of what we must be called to do. Make small changes, across the world for the betterment of the planet and all of its inhabitants including the destructive toddlers of the world, the Homo sapiens. But where to begin? I am a believer in starting small: make a change, turn it into a habit, move on to the next small change and then repeat.
Here are a few things which I have been trying to work into my life, my small things as a small person in a small place. I am always keenly aware that resources, finances and location will always be limiting factors for some people but there will always be a way to make greener, ethical choices in your day to day life. This list is by no means exhaustive and waste production is not the only issue we need to tackle collectively but it is a start, take what you can use and leave the rest.
Put your money where your heart is: Your money is highly desired by the corporate cankers of our consumerist culture and your spending decisions can be powerful in themselves. Spend your cash on companies who are ethical, environmentally aware and who treat their staff/supply chain fairly. If consumers refuse to buy, these corporations will start to notice and do whatever they can to lure the customers back. Educate yourselves on where your products come from, who owns the company and what their environmental and social policies are. Big brands will sit up and listen, especially in the era of cancel culture where one sensational tweet or viral video can cause a drop in profits. The power of the consumer has been seen in action in the UK with the banning of plastic straws and the availability of loose produce in many mainstream supermarkets.
Avoid single use where possible: Single use items are the most prolific things that end up in our oceans or strewn across the land. Think plastic straws, takeaway boxes, carrier bags, sandwich wrappers, plastic bottles, the needless shrink wrap around a cucumber (if only they had evolved some kind of external protective layer!?), tampons, nappies and tissues. Anything which is used once and then thrown away is not going to be good for the environment, especially as they are going to be used and discarded in large quantities. Luckily these days there are many alternatives to single use products like canvas shopping bags, bamboo straws, mooncups, handkerchiefs and the trusty stainless steel bottle. The way I have found best to avoid single use items is to be prepared, if you are going out and like to have a takeaway coffee – bring your own cup. Off for a G&T, ask for no straw and brandish your metal straw from your pocket. Keep a few canvas bags in your car or rucksack just in case you need one to avoid the plastic bags. Many of the single use items we have today stem from convenience, it is so much easier just to chuck it away rather than clean it after all. So be prepared my Wombles, and say no to single use.
Champion local eco businesses: Where you can support local businesses and growers who are environmentally friendly or who champion low/zero waste initiatives. In my home city I am lucky enough to have several zero waste and refill shops as well as a market with loose, local veggies. Seek out what you have nearby and as a bonus, your food will taste even better knowing that it didn’t have to be flown round the world to get to your plate. It is also a lot easier to track the supply chain of local businesses than wading through the murk of larger companies.
Invest in quality over quantity: If finances allow, invest in quality items over quantity as they will last longer than their cheaper counterparts. There is less waste generated from one item that can be used for years compared to one that has to be replaced every few months. That cast iron pan that was passed down to you or that you found in a charity shop has outlived several generations of cheap frying pans. My trusty DocMartens are still wearable after 15 years whilst other cheap and cheerful shoes bit the dust. Independent environmental manufacturers often have to sell their items at higher costs as they pay their staff a fair wage and have a sustainable supply chain, so if you are lucky enough to have higher spending power then use it to support these guys.
Question consumerism culture: why do we buy it? Is it because owning it will bring value and joy to our life? Or is it because we saw an advert for it or a friend wearing it and we must haves it my precious? I was a sucker for impulse buy and it was only when I started to sort through my possessions that I realised how much crap I had accumulated. “It was on offer” was a frequent justification in my brain as I coveted my new things. I have found, and I am not alone on this I feel, that a less cluttered life is much more pleasant and I now spend very little time browsing online and have uninstalled any apps where I used to get sucked in to spending. It has led to less waste, more clarity on what things actually add value to my life and a healthier bank balance so win-win as far as I am concerned. Question consumerism culture kids, do you think that Aunt Gladys would think you loved her any less if you gave her a hug on her birthday instead of a collection of trinkets and a glittery card which can’t be recycled?
Speak Up. Our voices are powerful, so lobby your politicians, sign petitions and send sassy tweets to companies who aren’t doing their best. Unfortunately in this world some voices have the privilege of being heard more loudly than others, if you own one of these then use yours as an amplifier for the words of those who are so unjustly ignored. Use your indignation to make change, it is all very well to post an outraged comment on social media but wouldn’t those words be more powerful if they were actioned?
Be an Ambassador for the Earth. Use the knowledge you have gained and the successful changes you have made to inspire others around you to become more environmentally friendly. My parents were serial plastic water bottle users but after some gentle prodding and a few nifty reusable bottles later they are now free from the addiction and enjoying the luxury we have in this country – clean tap water.
Remember to be gentle, no lecturing, and to reinforce the message that perfection isn’t what we need. We just need more small people making those small changes.
Champion your local environment, join clean up volunteer groups, protect your local wildlife from the scourge of our waste and help show the community that people care for their local areas. We should not have to rely on volunteers to do this job but in economically tight times where local councils are slashing budgets for waste and collection then it may be a necessary community effort. It is very easy to think “it isn’t my rubbish” or “someone else will get it”, but imagine if everyone picked up one piece of rubbish a day and properly disposed of it? How much cleaner the world would be! Of course, it goes without saying that if you litter I hope a Womble comes and pokes you in the eye. Don’t be a litterbug.
Remember that perfection isn’t needed, action is. I know I sound like a broken record but this is so vital. It is so easy to feel discouraged and disempowered but any small action is better than inaction. So, dear friend,think of that one thing you can change to make sure that you tread more lightly on the earth when you wake up tomorrow. We don’t need everyone to be perfect models of zero waste, we just need everyone to try to be a bit better than they were before.
“Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world”.