A simplified definition of sustainability is the development and adoption of every day practices by individuals, families, businesses, and governments that meet current resource needs without compromising the ability for future generations to do the same. Sustainability, though a result of the environmental movement, is not just about using environmentally conscious practices, but also about increasing the overall efficiency with which humans live their daily lives. Through increased efficiency, there is a hope that an overall improvement in the quality of life for everyone on earth can be achieved.
As of right now, the human population is not sustainable. Trying to provide for exponential growth of a species that is found on every continent is not sustainable. The massive over mining of materials, poisoning and polluting of watersheds, degradation of biomass, current agricultural practices, the over-fishing/over-harvesting of already strained populations, and the current disposal rates of non-biodegradable man-made materials are not sustainable.
So what can be done to change this? Changing our lifestyles as to provide for the future through a series of choices.
Sustainability is not organic gardening in your back yard. Sustainability is not an act of ending the lumber industry. Sustainability is not using well water instead of city water. Sustainability is not outlawing the use of GMO products in agriculture. Sustainability is not necessarily being vegan or vegetarian. Sustainability is complex and often is implemented after significant, irreversible damage has already been done to a resource.
The benefits of sustainability are not just environmental. Sustainable practices improve the overall health of human populations, and reduce the costs of every day living in both the long and short term.
What are some of the immediate benefits of sustainable changes?
Short Term Benefits (1-6 months)
- Improved mental and physical health
- Reduced cost of living
- Reduced refuse disposal
- Increased Profit (for businesses)
Long Term Benefits (6+ months)
- Reduction in risk of chronic illness
- Reduction of acute illness occurrence
- Reduced cost of living (more money in savings!)
- Reduced refuse disposal (time saved in cleaning)
- Reduction in traffic
- Increased profit (for businesses)
- Recovery of aquifers and waterbodies
- Reduced damage from stormwater
- More efficient interior climate control
So what can an individual do to make some immediate lifestyle changes providing some of these benefits?
Use Alternative Modes of Transportation - walking, biking, car pooling, and public transportation all reduce the overall use of fossil fuels. Walking and biking provide an overall health benefit, reducing risk of obesity and improving cardiovascular health while reducing the wear on roads caused by daily car travel. Car pooling and public transportation reduces traffic, fossil fuel use, and wear on roads. Depending on where you live, alternative modes of transportation may be faster than driving as an individual. To bike 6 miles on mostly flat terrain, it takes 25-45 minutes (depending on speed). If this 6 miles is within a city, that is the same speed or faster than the speed of traffic.
Buy Locally (and seasonally) and Support Local Businesses - Large chain stores rely on mass cross country shipping of goods from specific manufacturers and producers around the world.
Many items in a chain stores travel thousands of miles by a form of combustion engine before reaching the shelf. This includes items such as furniture, plastics, fabrics, books, and food. When these items are produce, large amounts of product loss and food waste is produced by environmental changes in shipping as well as just the time it takes to transport. In a grocery store, food bought locally and seasonally reduces the overall time in shipping, cost of shipping, and the fossil fuels used in that shipping.
By buying locally, there’s an overall improvement of the quality of product. In produce this is seen because it can actually get to early stages of ripeness before being harvested, as opposed to being harvested severely under ripe, and the produce is not treated with preservative waxes and sprays to reduce its likelihood of rotting during transit.
Change all lightbulbs to LED or Compact Fluorescent - This act alone can improve the efficiency of lighting by 80%, greatly reducing the overall costs involved in lighting. This increased efficiency not only decreases bills, but also reduces the amounts of heat produced by lighting.
Turn off appliances when not in use - This also reduces overall electrical costs and decreases heat produced by these appliances.
Reduce dependency on non-reusable/non-recyclable materials - Styrofoam and certain kinds of plastic containers are not recyclable, and are rarely reused. Almost all plastic food wrappings are non-recyclable and do not decompose, taking up space in landfills and your garbage can. Many products contain petroleum and other products of crude oil. By reducing the use of these products, crude oil dependency is also reduced.
Grocery bags, both paper and plastic, can be reduced or reused. By carrying a canvas bag and reminding the cashier that you brought your own, grocery bag build up can be reduced significantly. If a bag is necessary, try to get a paper bag. Paper bags can be used for collecting compost, bagging newspapers for recycling, or creating several unique reuses. If a plastic bag is unavoidable, reuse them or collect them and deposit them at a recycling location (normally a grocery store).
Compost everything you can - unless you live withint 100 feet of a stream or river, composting is an extremely effective method of waste reduction. In some places in Europe and the USA, compostable materials are separated from non-compostable as part of waste management practices. These compostable materials are then sent to a local composting site that then provides the nutrient rich humus produced back to the community either by selling it to local agriculture or to the community members. Compostable materials include: grass shavings, tree and bush trimmings, leaves, fruit and vegetable waste, egg shells, mollusk shells, soiled cardboard, etc. (A more full list of compostable materials can be found here)
Donate or recycle unwanted items to thrift stores and/or post ads for them on public forums - Instead of adding to the limited space in landfills, donate unwanted items to thrift stores, not-for-profit redistribution charities, or post ads to websites like freecycle and craigslist for someone to retrieve the items. Not only does it reduce the demand on landfill space, but it also reduces the fossil fuels involved in someone buying and/or replacing an item. If you’re planning on purchasing a replacement for the furniture in question, consider having it reupholstered instead of disposing of it.
Buy as much as possible from second hand stores (such as thrift stores) - Buying second hand reduces waste going to landfills and the fossil fuels involved in purchasing products such as furniture, flatware, ceramics, and decorations. It also reduces the overall cost of purchasing these products.
Switch to e-statements for banking, insurance, and billing - Reducing the amount of paper we use isn’t just about saving trees. The majority of trees used for paper production are white pine, one of the fastest growing trees in existence. The other aspects of the paper industry, fossil fuels burned during harvesting, chemicals used during processing that end up leaching into watersheds, heat produced by these factories, and chemically treated paper pulp waste contribute to the industry’s lack in sustainability. The trees are actually the most sustainable part! By switching to e-statements, no paper is used in delivering the same information, and no more junk mail is piled into the waste basket (though it should be recycled where possible).
Use Mass Transit when travelling - Travelling long distance can be a pain and driving is one of the slowest methods available. Due to inefficiency, I will not recommend using Amtrak in the United States besides the few metropolitan areas where it has become more efficient. Mass Transit Bus Companies such as China Bus, MegaBus, and Greyhound all provide an inexpensive alternative to driving. Normally taking the same amount of time as driving, by transporting 40+ people at any given time, there is a large reduction in fossil fuel use. Air travel is also an increasingly efficient transportation option for long distances. Not only does air travel normally take much less time, but it also costs less than the money that would be spent on gas getting to the destination.
Hope you enjoyed this [very] brief introduction to sustainability.