Often, January is filled with resolutions you don't intend to keep. But what if I told you there were resolutions you could make now that would forever change the planet? Well, if nothing else this new year, I challenge you to keep these five sustainable resolutions. Let this be the year you dedicate to helping the earth in ways that make a big impact.
Go Zero Waste
One of the best things you can do for the planet is to go zero waste. The average American wastes 4.4 pounds of trash per day. That garbage winds up in our seas or back in our community, where it can do serious harm to ecosystems. Only 9 percent of plastic gets recycled, which is a small amount when you consider we have made more than 8.3 billion tons of it. Clearly, recycling isn’t the answer, since so little of it actually happens. Not to mention, when a plastic item is recycled, it’s technically downcycled, turned into something of lesser quality. After a certain point, plastic can no longer be recycled.
The zero waste movement aims to reduce the amount of trash we produce as a society. It’s not about being perfect. In our society, it’s almost impossible to produce absolutely no waste whatsoever. That’s because we live in a linear economy instead of a circular one. Products are not designed to last, which results in them being tossed out and the need to purchase more. Single-use items are the perfect example of this: Think about paper towels. When you purchase them, they are designed for the landfill and you have to continue purchasing them throughout your life. That’s a lot of money to waste on a product you don’t get to keep for very long.
If you'd like to go zero waste and support a more circular economy, here are a few tips and tricks:
- Stop using single-use plastic straws: Ask for no straw in your drink when dining out and opt for reusable straws made from glass, metal, or bamboo instead.
- Take a reusable (stainless steel or glass) water bottle with you: You can fill it up with water or any other drink you prefer.
- Carry reusable cutlery on your person: Wrap some silverware in a reusable cloth napkin and take it with you to avoid disposable cutlery.
- Bring a reusable tote bag: I like to store one in my purse, but I also recommend keeping one in your car for an impromptu shopping trip.
- Invest in zero waste lunch essentials: There’s never a need to have a wasteful lunch.
- Learn how to DIY certain items: Making your own toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant, and lip balm can seriously help cut back on packaging waste.
- Ask for a real plate, cup, and fork at a party: Instead of using disposables, stay zero waste at a party or event. And if you host a party yourself, make sure it’s as low waste as possible.
- Use a menstrual cup or reusable pads on your period: Here’s how to have a zero waste period.
- Have a low waste sick season: Use handkerchiefs, homemade cough drops, and natural remedies when sick.
- Keep your home low waste: Look into ways to have a zero waste bathroom and kitchen especially (this is where a lot of waste is generated in the home).
- Switch to zero waste cleaning supplies: My favorite is an orange peel vinegar cleaner, zero waste dish soap, and zero waste detergent.
Eat a (more) Plant-Based Diet
Do you know what your water footprint looks like? If you eat meat, it’s probably a lot larger than someone who doesn’t. Water isn’t an infinite resource: There’s only so much drinkable water on this Earth, and we’re running out of it. It’s safe to say we should all be doing our part to reduce our water footprint. One of the best ways to do this, surprisingly, is to eat a plant-based diet.
Animal products generally take more water to make than plants. For example, producing just one pound of beef takes an estimated 1,581 gallons of water (roughly as much as the average American uses in 100 showers). The reason? Livestock need water to drink and be washed in—and water is also needed to grow their food. Agriculture makes up approximately 80 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use—in other words, land used to grow animal feed. We could be using that land to grow crops for humans, or restoring forests and natural habitats instead.
The best way to reduce your water footprint is to eat a plant-based diet—or a more plant-based diet. Stick to whole foods over processed foods—a lot of additional water is needed to process and package processed foods. Plus, most processed foods come in single use packaging, which are not designed to be recycled.
Limit the amount of meat and dairy you put into your body. Choose vegetarian, or better yet vegan, dishes whenever possible. Here are vegan meal ideas you can sink your teeth into. Some of my favorite vegan dishes are organic oatmeal, vegetable soup, and kale salad. For the oatmeal, I just mix it with some cinnamon, nutmeg, and maple syrup, and then I add a chopped apple to it. For vegetable soup, I use whatever seasonal vegetables I have on hand. For kale salad I like to use apples, carrots, broccoli, and quinoa. You can play around with the ingredients and add whatever you like, but stick to keeping them as vegan as possible.
Switch to Renewable Energy
Fossil fuels are terrible for the environment. They pollute our air and damage human health time and time again. It’s best we move away from them as a society, and even more important we do it quicker than anticipated. According to a UN climate report, we only have 12 years left to reverse climate change without catastrophic damage. That’s not a lot of time, but there are plenty of ways to start reducing your carbon footprint as we speak. Everything on this list can certainly help, for starters. But one big way to reduce your carbon emissions is to switch to renewable energy.
Consider switching to solar or wind energy to power your home. You don’t necessarily have to install solar panels in order to participate either (though, that is a nice option). You can join a community solar farm, look into green energy programs with your current utility, and cut down on your energy bill altogether with energy efficient products. I always look for the energy star seal whenever buying a new appliance or electronic and you should do the same (this will ensure it uses less energy overall).
Whenever possible, you should also consider biking or walking to work. Or, at the very least, using public transportation. This will reduce the amount of emissions put into the environment as a whole. If you’re feeling extra motivated, consider investing in an electric car as well, to be less dependent on fossil fuels and more reliant on renewable energy.
Start a Garden or Join a Community Garden
So many people have grown disconnected to where their food comes from, and what actually grows in their region and season. The best way to get back in tune with this is to start a garden, or join a community garden. Starting your own garden is a great way to use up excess space in your backyard. Plus it’s a very rewarding pastime that will simultaneously give you a workout. You can begin by planting easy to grow crops, or ask an experienced gardener you may know for help. When you’ve established your garden and it’s flourishing, think of ways to connect your garden to the community.
No space to garden? You can do a quick search online to see if there are any community gardens near you. Most community gardens start accepting members as early as January, so it’s important to look into it right away. Usually, they will start getting the soil ready and planted come spring though, when the last frost has ended.
Joining or starting a community garden is a great way to get your community involved with the idea of package free food. Nature creates the perfect, natural packaging for her plants. For example, an orange has skin that protects it all its own. It doesn’t need plastic. You might think some foods do (like berries)—but the truth is, those can just be put into paper cartons or jars. There’s no need to put them in hard-to-recycle plastic. Growing your own food at a community garden will help you see that.
If your community doesn’t have a garden, consider setting one up. There are certain steps you have to take in order to do this, but here’s a handy guide that should help. Since you’ll be in charge of the garden, you can keep it as plastic free as you want—if people want to take produce home with them, encourage them to use paper bags, cartons, and jars. You could even offer reusable cloth produce bags on site and have community members return them every week when they come to tend their garden plot—whatever you can do to keep the garden as low waste as possible!
Fight Food Waste
Americans waste 40 percent of their food—that’s an insane amount considering there are so many starving people in this world. The sad irony is we have enough food to feed everyone, but it is either wasted or lost in production. Food loss is a bit different than food waste—it’s food that is lost in production and never reaches the grocery store, farmers market, or our plates—for example, an orange that falls out of a truck, or a crate of apples that topples over into mud. Food waste is when food reaches our grocery stores, and our plates, and for all kinds of reasons is thrown away. Grocery stores are known for throwing out food before it rots too: If they cannot sell certain foods by a certain date, they will toss it, regardless of whether it’s still good or not. It’s no wonder lots of people go dumpster diving: The dumpsters of grocery stores are often filled with perfectly edible food!
Consumers are also responsible for food waste. Whenever we cannot finish something, be it at a restaurant or at home, we simply dump it in the trash. This makes no sense to do. The smartest option is to save it for later, and this is one of the easiest methods of reducing food waste. But it’s not just that: We also have a habit of wasting food scraps we think are inedible or lack purpose (like the tops of strawberries and carrots or the peels of an onion). Did you know you can use strawberry tops in smoothies for a nutritional boost? Or that carrot tops can be made into carrot top pesto? Onion peels can be saved up with other vegetable skins (like carrot, parsnip, and garlic peels) to make zero waste vegetable stock. So, before you go wasting your food scraps, reconsider their use. At the very least, compost them. This will help prevent them from going to a landfill and emitting methane gas.
When food, be it a plate of unfinished beans or scraps like the tops of strawberries, is sent to the landfill, it does not properly decompose. The conditions are not optimal for organic products to break down in. Here's what happens to food scraps that are thrown away. It’s not a pretty process. In fact, food scraps in the landfill produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.