By Hannah Vonberg
Climate change has been a major scientific concern since at least the 1960s, yet it is still largely dismissed from political agendas in many countries. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Fridays for Future protestors have had to stay at home while politicians were busy trying to solve the more prominent crisis. Then, with lock-down and restrictions being implemented all across the globe, many environmental problems (such as smog) have been temporarily ameliorated. There is no doubt, however, that these improvements are exactly that – temporary. Action still needs to be taken, by “big politics” and the society as a whole – which may sound like an impossible task, yet, after all, society is constituted of individuals. Every single one of us can make minor changes in our daily lives towards a gradually more eco-friendly way of life. This article aims to introduce a selection of small-scale changes that can help improve our ecological footprints significantly – from home!
The ecological footprint as a concept first appeared in the early 1990s, and since then has been widely used as an “indicator of biophysical limits and sustainability” (Costanza, 2000). Like many terms in environmental science, it does not entail one clear definition, and consequently has been instrumentalised for different political and economic goals. More importantly, the blurriness of the concept leads to an alienation of the people. A survey by Bleys et al (2018) found that “people are largely unaware of the environmental impact they have”. This is unfortunate, since many eco-friendly swaps are relatively easy and cheap. The following tips and swaps are specifically aimed at combining low budget and environmental friendliness at home!
Of course most people have heard of industrial recycling by now. Nonetheless, this has not solved the problem of globally unsustainable ecological footprints. There is still too much waste piling up in our landfills and oceans, meaning a new solution is needed. A very simple way to reduce waste is to re-use and re-purpose. With just a bit of time and creativity, nearly every item we purchase can be used in multiple ways. A great example are empty pasta sauce jars: once cleaned, they make a great storage for nuts, dried fruit, paper-clips, or essentially anything small you might want to store in a dry place. Swap-shops, second-hand shops or even an agreement between friends or neighbours are great options for exchanging and re-using clothes and household items (e.g. furniture). Finally, another way of re-purposing is aimed at reducing water usage – which is good for both the environment and your bills. Water for rinsing vegetables or boiling rice can be used to water house plants (especially rice-boiling-water is great, since it contains a lot of starch and acts as a natural fertilizer).
Correspondingly, one of the major obstacles to reducing waste is single-use products, as they are often made from plastic which rarely gets recycled. Things like plastic straws and paper towels can be discarded or easily replaced (in the case of paper towels a rag is suitable). Another simple and well-known way to avoid unnecessary single-use plastic is to bring your own bags for grocery shopping. But what if single-use seems unavoidable, for example, feminine hygiene products? With a bit of research, you will see that there is a surprisingly extensive amount of eco-friendly options. To stick with our example, tampons and pads (which are a big waste and also quite expensive) can be replaced by a menstrual cup or washable cotton-pads).
So instead of buying single-use or low quality products, we can try to purchase more high quality investment pieces (which will last longer and save us money and waste). Every student’s best friend is the good ol’ reusable water bottle, but there are many more useful swaps. Changing regular light bulbs into LEDs saves money and energy, since LED lights are more energy efficient, last longer and radiate less heat (indicating that less energy is being transformed in the waste product ‘heat’ rather than the wanted product ‘light’). Or take, for example, drug store shampoo: it can be easily replaced with solid shampoo (also called shampoo bars), which lasts much longer (making it a very cheap option), is easily transportable whilst travelling, and saves a lot of plastic packaging.
Another note on investment pieces, though: Do not let ‘hip’ companies trick you with the ‘newest’ most exciting low-waste products; buying more things always amounts to more waste, so our primary focus should be on using what we already have before buying something new.
That being said, if we decide to purchase investment pieces, we should try and keep an eye out for ecologically responsible brands and small businesses which can actually prove that they are giving back to nature or to the community. This applies to clothes and other items as well, but here I am mostly referring to grocery shopping. Buying fruit and vegetables package-free (bring your own bags!), locally, and seasonally improves not only your ecological footprint and money-situation, but also the quality of your meals. With fresher and tastier vegetables, bought in a market etc., cooking is just more fun! Plus, since markets are usually much cheaper than the supermarket, you can spend more money on high-quality food there (or save it and use it for something else). Zero-waste-shops sell all kinds of products, and you are encouraged to bring your own jars and tupperware to fill them there with everything ranging from cereal to pasta and even cleaning supplies. Keep in mind, though, that despite the fact these shops usually have an emphasis on environmentally friendlier products, they may not necessarily be the most sustainable option; buying locally grown vegetables, fruit, and grains remains the most eco-friendly option.
Finally, keeping track of our own efficiency is a great eye-opener for reducing our ecological footprint. Small changes can save many valuable resources. Setting your preferences for paying taxes and other administrative notifications to ‘online’ can save the local authorities postage costs, loads of ink, paper and various other resources.
To conclude, all these changes are, of course, just suggestions. Even making small adjustments in our daily lives can be beneficial for our health and the environment, and some options may work better for some people than for others. For those that are really motivated, surprisingly many daily usage products can be made at home: cleaning supplies, conditioner, face masks, plant fertilizers, and many more (recipes on how to make them can be found online on many eco-friendly swap websites, e.g. on https://learn.eartheasy.com/guides/non-toxic-home-cleaning/). In addition, making a difference always includes education. If we want people to lead a more eco-friendly life, we need to show them options on how to do it without coming across as patronising. Instead of ‘guilting’ others about their behaviour, we should motivate each other by exchanging experiences and recommending products, brands, and changes. After all, excitement is considered a better motivator than spite.
Besides, eco-friendly swaps save a lot of money while benefiting the environment – a win-win made possible from the comfort of our own home!
Edited by Karolina Hajna, Artwork by Mira Kurtovic
Bleys, B., Defloor, B., Van Ootegem, L., Verhofstadt, E. (2018). The Environmental Impact of Individual Behavior: Self-Assessment Versus the Ecological Footprint. Environment and Behavior, 50(1), 187-212. doi: 0.1177/0013916517693046
Costanza, R. (2000). The dynamics of the ecological footprint concept. Ecological Economics, 32(5), 341-345.