During the forced pause of COVID-19, there has been plenty of evidence of how much the environment is benefitting from our reduced activity. Before we return to our old lives and habits, maybe we can pause to reflect on how we can carry some of these gains forward. Could the pandemic show more people how we have been damaging our world? Is it possible for us to see it as a wake-up call to change some of our ways?
There have been definite and staggering environmental improvements worldwide: from the subjective reports of increased wildlife roaming previously heavily trafficked areas to objective records of increased air quality globally. The International Energy Agency estimates that the world will use between 4-6% less energy this year due to about half the world’s population having experienced complete or partial lockdowns. This is expected to lead to an 8% decrease in C02 emissions in 2020. A recent study of air pollution by IQAir showed significant improvement in levels of PM2.5, a particularly dangerous pollutant causing significant health risks, in seven of the 10 cities assessed.
However, if history is anything to go by, without input from governments, people and businesses, this is likely to be only a temporary dip in an ongoing yearly increase.
So, what personal sustainability action goals can we set for ourselves to decrease emissions?
One of the simplest ways we can decrease our environmental impact is to cut our use of disposable plastic.
Did you know that of the 359 million tons of plastic produced in 2018, only 33% was single-use and only 10% was recycled (Statista 2019)? By 2050 production and disposal of plastic is set to use up 14 per cent of the world’s remaining carbon budget (Ciel 2019). It is estimated that 2% of plastic is thrown away as litter. Eight million tons ends up in the oceans either in large pieces or as microplastics, which have many and far-reaching consequences. Plastic in landfill can take 450 years to degrade and releases toxic chemicals into the ground and thence into our food chain (Our World in Data 2018).
But there are small steps that each of us can make to address climate change through reducing plastic consumption. Here are some common challenges and opportunities for change:
Challenge: 500 billion single-use plastic cups are used worldwide (Earth Day 2018) every year. Because of drink contamination and plastic linings, they are not recyclable. Lids are not accepted in curbside recycling bins and even cardboard sleeves, which can be recycled, often aren’t. A single-use cup per day habit produces 23lb of plastic waste per person per year.
Opportunity: Transition to a reusable, preferably repurposed, mug. Buy one for a friend or two!
Challenge: Two million single-use plastic bags are distributed worldwide every minute. Less than 3% get recycled (NRDC).
Opportunity: Transition to reusable bags and take plastic bags to a drop-off location.
Challenge: One million single-use plastic water bottles are bought worldwide every minute (Earth Day 2018).
Opportunity: Transition to a reusable water bottle and resist buying bottled water.
Challenge: 500 million plastic straws are used by Americans every day (Earth Day 2018).
Opportunity: Don’t use a straw or bring your own reusable ones. Want to take it an extra step? Take your own reusable cutlery when eating out!
Challenge: 141 million tons of plastic packaging are used every year worldwide (Earth Day 2018).
Opportunity: Buy food with minimal packaging. Buy in bulk wherever possible and cover leftover food with bowls, plates or reusable paper.
There are plenty of ways that we can use this difficult time to make progress towards reversing some of our former habits for the good of our planet. In addition to the small actions above, you can also become familiar with local rules to maximize your household recycling potential; start a dialogue with local cafes and friends to encourage change in what they use and how they recycle; join in or create a waterway clean-up project as possible in your home country.
We need not be disheartened by the statistics. Change takes time and it is not too late to turn the tide. We can each do something. Collectively our individual efforts will add up to make a real difference for our planet in the future.
Laura Nathwani qualified as a veterinary surgeon in 2005 and worked in practice for the UK charity PDSA before choosing to stay at home with her young family. During this time she completed her masters in global health from the university Manchester and moved continents three times; first to Australia where she fell in love with the country and made friends with several Initiatives of Change members at the Australian centre, Armagh. She then returned to the UK before traveling around the world for 7 months, touring throughout Africa and Asia, and ending up in the USA where she currently resides.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.