Back in 1992, when I was moving to the US, Rio de Janeiro was hosting the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development – The Rio Earth Summit. I remember having the Time magazine covering the issues that were being discussed in Rio, with me on my flight to Ann Arbor. Among the many topics discussed and agreed upon by the 179 nations represented, was the concept of sustainable development. I remember most clearly how the importance of the Amazon Forest was lauded as the lungs of the planet. The threat of deforestation of the Amazon jungle and its consequences for the environment were considered serious and terrifying. I also remember how critics argued that developed countries were trying to avoid taking responsibility for their own pollution and environmental damage by imposing the onus of saving the environment on developing countries. Thirty years have since passed and now we know that both sides were right: The deforestation of the Amazon Forest has continued and even accelerated in the past few years, and it can no longer absorb as much of the greenhouse gasses as scientists deem necessary to avoid climate disaster. Consumerism has created a hunger for discardable and single-use objects that resulted in plastic being found anywhere and everywhere on the planet. If the idea of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was horrifying (twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France back in 2018), new reports are even more so: The plastic garbage island is just the tip of the iceberg – just a small fraction of the plastic garbage laying on the seafloor.
We have all seen the photos of dead birds who ingest small plastic debris and end up dying of hunger. We are comforted to know we are doing our best by recycling at home. What we might not know is that of all the plastic goods manufactured in the US in 2018, for example, only 8.7% was actually recycled. Renee Cho explains in “Recycling in the US is Broken. How Do We Fix it?” (link below), that one of the obstacles in recycling plastics is that it is cheaper to use virgin material than recycled material in the manufacture of new products.
Plastics is only one area where we are losing the fight to save the planet. Agriculture accounts for 70% of the water use worldwide. But around 35% of the food produced in the US is never consumed. 61% of the food waste happens in households like yours and mine. And according to Jangira Lewis, “Food waste accounts for a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions”.
As a matter of fact, the US is ranked the most wasteful country in the world. We produce more waste per capita than anywhere else. Americans have become used to a discardable lifestyle and few communities show concern or awareness of the consequences of their carbon footprints.
This month, a UN panel published a report warning that the time left to stop climate change is short and that reversing the damage already occurring will be impossible 10 years from now, if changes are not adopted globally.
Now is time for action. What can we do?
Here are some ideas of what you could do. As you start thinking about the issues concerning the environment, you will probably find more ways to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
PLASTIC AND WASTE:
- Before you buy something, take a second to decide if you really need it.
- If you decide you do need something, check if you can borrow it (Can you borrow it from the library? Check the list of resources in “What Do I Do With…?”
- If you need to buy something, can you buy a used one?
- Become aware of what kind of materials are recyclable in your community and where you can recycle them. Check “Living in Ann Arbor: Recycling and Waste” and “What Do I Do With…?” for resources.
- Make sure the material you are sending for recycling is clean to avoid contamination of batches.
- Avoid or diminish your consumption of plastics. Metal cans and glass jars are preferable because they are recycled more efficiently.
- Avoid using and buying single-use items such as plastic cups, plates and film wrap.
- Use a reusable water bottle. City water in this area is of very good quality.
- Use cloth napkins, handkerchiefs, and cloth cleaning rags.
- Send home-cooked packed meals for your children’s school lunches and snacks.
- Bring an empty container to store leftovers when eating at a restaurant.
- Use reusable bags when grocery shopping and storing produce.
- Shop at Farmers Markets and Bulk Stores.
At bulk stores, you can bring your own clean and empty jars and containers which you can fill with the products you are buying. Just make sure to weigh your empty container before you fill them.
For example, By The Pound, in Ann Arbor, sells gourmet food by weight. They have all kinds of pantry food: sugar, coffee, nuts, pasta, candies, dry fruits, oils, etc. (9052 S. Industrial Hwy, Ann Arbor, MI 48104).
BYOC Co., sells beauty and cleaning products by weight in their refill station. https://www.byocco.com
Bee Joyful, in Dexter, also sells beauty products by weight in their refill station. https://beejoyfulshop.com
- Make yourself aware of what you already have in your refrigerator and pantry before you go grocery shopping.
- Plan what to buy and cook. Keep to the plan and avoid buying food and snacks you don’t need.
- Don’t go grocery shopping while hungry or angry. Both emotions can lead to the purchase of more food than you need.
- Use your freezer to store food you do not consume right away. Pickling and making jams are other ways to extend the life of your produce.
- Transform your leftovers: Cooked vegetables can be incorporated in breakfast omelets, for example.
- Riper fruits and vegetables can be used in jams, smoothies, sauces, and soups.
- Be friendly and share your cooking. If you realize you made too much of a dish, it might be a good time to invite a friend for a meal and get acquainted with your neighbors.
- Start a compost pile or bucket. Check Robyn’s recipe in “Composting for beginners”.
- United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3-14 June, 1992. https://www.un.org/en/conferences/environment/rio1992
- Plastics: Material- Specific Data. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data
- Imbler, Sabrina. In the Ocean, It’s Snowing Microplastics. The New York Times. April 3, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/03/science/ocean-plastic-animals.html
- Cho, Renee. Recycling in the US is Broken. How Do We Fix it? https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/03/13/fix-recycling-america/
- The Environmental Impact of Food Waste. https://moveforhunger.org/the-environmental-impact-of-food-waste
- From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impact of U.S. Food Waste. https://www.epa.gov/land-research/farm-kitchen-environmental-impacts-us-food-waste
- Lewis, Jangira. How Does Food Waste Affect The Environment. https://earth.org/how-does-food-waste-affect-the-environment/
- Fight Climate Change By Preventing Food Waste. https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/fight-climate-change-by-preventing-food-waste
- Plumer, Brad and Zhong, Raymond. Stopping Climate Change is Doable, but Time is Short. The New York Times. April 5, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/04/climate/climate-change-ipcc-un.html
- Turrentine, Jeff. The United States is the Most Wasteful Country in the World. https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/united-states-most-wasteful-country-world