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Broccoli, celery and oranges in reusable shopping bags, with grains in reusable glass jars

Actionable Ways to Live More Sustainably

Broccoli, celery and oranges in reusable shopping bags, with grains in reusable glass jars

Actionable Ways to Live More Sustainably

Planet Earth is our home — we've got to clean up our acts and stop trashing the place.

There are many issues plaguing our ecosystems and contributing to climate change, which is moving at a terrifying speed — and plastic waste is pretty high on that list. To be clear, the problem isn’t just the garbage it generates — producing plastic also contributes to the carbon emissions cycle that scientists warn us is warming the globe.

More disturbing truths: Half of all plastics manufactured have been made in the last two decades — and that’s a lot of plastic, according to a global analysis of mass-produced plastics. We’re talking tens of millions of metric tons and growing. (Sadly, production actually accelerated during the pandemic).

Unfortunately, much less of it gets recycled than you might assume — in fact, less than 10 percent actually does. Recently, social commentator John Oliver railed about that abysmal stat on his show, explaining that it’s cheaper for manufacturers to make new plastic than to recycle the old and exposing the lies that have been fed to us for decades. Also, the U.S. is one of the only wealthy countries without an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law on the books, which puts the burden of dealing with waste back on the company that makes it, though legislators have been trying to change that with the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which was introduced last year and is set to be introduced again in 2021.

"You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."

So what happens to all the plastic that doesn't get recycled? About 12 percent gets incinerated, and the rest (about 79 percent) ends up in landfills or trapped in the natural environment — like in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It also gets shipped overseas to less-wealthy nations.

Right now you’re probably thinking: Shame on us.

But as bleak as it all may seem, there are countless changes we can make in our day-to-day lives to live more sustainably and to reduce the negative impact on the planet in the process. As leading primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall once said: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Here are 15 ways you can make a positive difference not just on Earth Day (April 22), but every day:

Start small

As it is with any changes, trying to overhaul your whole life all at once can be overwhelming. But as Lia Avellino, Director of Head and Heart at THE WELL, says: When it comes to forming habits, “desire follows will, so if we are able to get started we are more likely to pick up momentum.”

Commit to one sustainable swap a month. Start with simple everyday product swaps — like using reusable ziploc bags or trading out your laundry detergent for package-free alternatives. Over time, these simple changes can have a powerful impact.

And remember — use up your current stock of products before buying their sustainable equivalent.

Reuse or repurpose before you recycle

Knowing what we know about recycling — that so few recyclables actually end up being recycled — it’s important to focus on the steps that come before recycling. Reusing saves the energy that comes from the process of dismantling and re-manufacturing products because the recycling process itself creates waste and pollution.

While you can’t repurpose everything, there’s so much you can find a new use for. In need of containers? Before you toss that jar from your marinara sauce, wash it out and reuse it for food storage. (Jars make great containers for salads, soups and more.) Consider doing the same with takeout containers. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging amounted to 82.2 million tons of waste generation in 2018.

Fan of candles? Repurpose their containers for office supplies, makeup brushes or loose change.

Embrace Minimalism

A key part of living more sustainably is living more minimally. In other words, you don’t need 10 reusable water bottles — less really is more. And research, while still new, demonstrates a positive relationship between a minimalist lifestyle and a sense of mental wellbeing. Clear out your clutter, but don’t just throw it away— donate it responsibly. (This Consumer Reports resource tells you how to get rid of practically anything).

Commit to meatless Mondays (or more) 

Meat production is the greatest driver of methane emissions — a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Want to determine your own carbon footprint from meat consumption? The Omni Meat Footprint Calculator, designed by Hannah Pamula, breaks it down — and it’s quite the shocker. “If you tell someone that one burger a month is equivalent to 32.6 pounds of CO₂eq [greenhouse gas emissions] produced, it might seem like a small number. But if you find out that it’s similar to charging 1,891 smartphones or even driving for 36.6 miles, then it’s alarming,” Pamula explains.

Commit to one meat-free day a week. Or if you’re ready to take it a step further, try being a weekday vegetarian, which Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger, discusses in his TEDTalk.

Use eco-friendly cleaners

Many common household cleaners contain toxic chemicals that get washed down the drain and end up in our water supply. Be sure to shop for eco-friendly cleaning products without harsh chemicals, like those from Grove, Common Good and many others. Or make your own — just mix equal parts white vinegar and water and add a few drops of your favorite essential oil.

RELATED: 6 Tips for a Healthier Home

Combat microplastics

Microplastics are the tiny particles of plastic that come from the process of plastics breaking down. These fragments end up in the air, in our waterways, and… in people. In fact a 2019 study suggested we may be ingesting up to five grams of microplastics a week — equivalent to a credit card.

One source of microfibers? Your laundry. The synthetic microfibers, made from non-biodegradable plastic, come off your clothes in the wash and leech directly into the water. An average-sized 13-pound load of laundry is estimated to release 700,000 microfibers. You can buy a filter for your washing machine, to help catch microplastics that come off of your clothes and avoid them getting washed into the water system.

Microplastics are also found in bottled water — a whopping 93% of bottled water companies have been found to contain microplastic particles. Consider investing in a water filtration system, like a Berkey filter, which filters out over 99.999 percent of bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants. Plus, it cuts down on plastic water bottle waste — plastics that significantly contribute to the microplastic problem.

Buy sustainably sourced wellness products

“Mindful harvesting of wild plants is vital to the health and cultural preservation of our planet,” says Michelle Gagnon, a bio alchemist and consultant for THE WELL. “If cultivation practices employ pesticides and insecticides, the health of plants and soil is diminished and the population of pollinators that our ecosystems deeply depend on is harmed. As a side effect, the quality of botanicals we enjoy for health and well-being is also reduced.”

Gagnon suggests doing research: “With a marketplace so saturated with wellness products, and many claiming to be sustainably sourced, it is helpful to dig for the facts, the story, the connection, and the truth,” she says. “Learn about the person or practice behind the sourcing of the products you use and consider the materials you use on a daily basis.”

RELATED: THE WELL Q&A: Michelle K. Gagnon

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Shop your local farmers market

Think about all the trash that comes from just one grocery run — the plastic containers that hold fruit or lettuce, the mesh bags that surround avocados, the packaging around snacks, the list goes on and on. Shopping at your local farmers market is a great way to reduce packaging waste, and support local farmers in the process.

Just bring your stock of reusable bags and you’re good to go! Plus, shopping at the farmer’s market encourages you to eat in season, which cuts down on the energy and emissions it takes to ship off-season produce across the country.

While you’re at it, limit food waste by starting a compost bin. If you don’t have a way to compost at home, check to see if your local farmer’s market will take extra food scraps.

RELATED: Shop the Summer Farmers Market Like a Chef

Keep a reusable coffee cup with you

When you’re busy, it’s easy to pop into a coffee shop for a to-go Joe, but all of those coffee cups add up. The solution? Keep a reusable coffee cup on hand. The ones from Stojo are great because they’re collapsible and compact.

Go thrifting

As the saying goes… “one person’s trash is another’s treasure.” Thrift stores are a great way to find vintage clothes, furniture, goods for the home and everything in between — and you give new life to a piece that may otherwise end up in a landfill. According to ThredUp, “Buying [pre-owned clothes] extends a garment's life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 82%.”

You can also shop second-hand finds online from consignment websites and apps such as Offer Up, Chairish, Poshmark, Etsy.

Buying pre-owned clothes extends a garment's life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 82%.

Make your own food staples

There’s certain food staples that we’ve come to rely on daily, but unfortunately, that means we go through them rapidly — all that food packaging adds up to a lot of trash. So consider making staples such as salad dressings, almond milk and granola yourself — it may take a little extra effort, but when you make them yourself, you know exactly what ingredients are being used, which is healthier too!

RELATED: This Adaptogenic Granola is a Beauty Superfood

Harness the sun's power

Instead of leaving your phone charger plugged into the wall draining energy all day, opt for solar energy chargers instead. And shop solar-powered speakers, outdoor lights and of course, solar roof tiles to really utilize the sun’s energy.

Give the gift of sustainability

For birthdays and holidays, give a gift that is more sustainable — perhaps an experience like tickets to a concert or play, cooking classes or a spa treatment. Or, consider giving something that helps the recipient live more responsibility. (See the list of products below for inspiration).

Vote the change you want to see

With every election, sustainability policies are on the ballot — like banning plastic grocery bags and single-use plastics, waste management protocol or environmental protection policies. In 2017, Michigan, Arizona, Idaho and Missouri enacted laws that prohibit the banning of single-use plastic items “allegedly in an attempt to protect the industry.” Familiarize yourself with what’s on the ballot so that your vote can make a difference.

Find zero waste or low waste alternatives

There’s a more sustainable swap for just about everything these days. And with refill shops for everything from olive oil to laundry soap popping up in neighborhoods around the country, finding plastic-free alternatives is becoming a lot easier.

“Choosing materials and components that are sustainable — either renewable or recyclable — ensures long-term availability of resources,” reminds Gagnon. For even more ideas and motivation, check out zero-waste blogs.

Starter tip: Focus on one space at a time. Here’s a list of some great eco-friendly swaps you can make, room by room.

The Kitchen:

The Bathroom:

RELATED: THE WELL Q&A: Kate McLeod

The Closet:

  • When looking for new pieces, shop ethically made and clothing created from recycled sources:
    • Girlfriend Collective, workout clothes made from recycled plastic bottles
    • Allbirds, sustainable shoes made from natural materials
    • Tentrees plants ten trees for every item sold
    • Prana, certified fair trade, made with responsible forest fibers and tencel
    • Swaggr, socks made from recycled plastic bottles
    • Patagonia’s WornWear program recycles and repurposes old Patagonia gear and gives you credit off your next purchase
  • Donate old clothes, or for things that can’t be donated, box them up to be recycled or repurposed with Terracycle
  • Reuse-a-shoe: Send in old sneakers to Nike, who repurpose them

The Bedroom:

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