It's 2019 and I'm pretty sure most of us have got the memo that we need to curb some of our habits that end up having an enormous impact on the environment. But looking at all of the swaps and changes we should introduce can sometimes be massively overwhelming.
I'd like to think I've made a decent start when it comes to being more sustainable. Whilst I'm no Waste Warrior and seriously admire people who've been able to cut out their waste almost entirely (looking at you, lady who fit all her waste in a single mason jar!), I've definitely become more conscious about my habits and managed to cut down my plastic use massively in some areas. And yet, in other areas I find myself still using far too many products that aren't eco-friendly at all.
If you consider all the different areas in which we use plastic products or disposable items, it can seem like an insurmountable task to swap out products for more environmentally-friendly items. Going beyond foodstuffs, there's so much you throw into the household bin or recycle: cotton pads, shampoo and hair products, pet food, and so much more.
I freely admit I need more education on being more sustainable, which is why I was thrilled a friend gifted me the book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste by Kathryn Kellogg. One of the main takeaways from the book is that recycling should really be a last resort. In truth, whilst turning more towards recycling is certainly a positive move, the fact remains that even if we do recycle, we go through a massive amount of disposable products.
Being able to cut down the amount of waste you produce to the extent of having only a single mason jar's worth of waste is perhaps a goal we should strive towards then and use recycling as a complementary practice. However, I believe it is important to recognise that leading an extremely zero-waste lifestyle may not necessarily be compatible with our lifestyles or budgets, unfortunately.
It can be quite difficult going a week without producing a substantial amount of waste, especially given how much needless plastic is used to wrap food and other items found in a weekly shop. As a result, it can come across as an overwhelming task requiring a complete overhaul of every aspect of your life.
To a certain extent, we do need to change our habits in order to not abuse the world we live on. But I would argue that we need to start with the most seamless swaps to get into the habit of leading a more conscious lifestyle.
Easy swaps and an attitude change
Already being more conscious of your own environmental impact is perhaps the first step to changing your habits. Knowing that you should cut down on your plastic consumption helps you consider what you purchase and use in a more thoughtful manner, although this is by no means a revolutionary concept.
The easiest way to start some lifestyle changes usually revolves around drinking - reusable bottles and coffee cups have seen a boom and more often than not, you'll see people carrying their own water bottles around. Even if you were to buy a plastic bottle of water and reuse it for two weeks, that would still be around 26 bottles of water bought and discarded in a year. If you do like to indulge in takeaway coffee, then reusable coffee cups are great too.
There is a balance to be found in patting yourself too much on the back and being overcome by guilt if you do happen to forget your bottle or cup at one point. I usually try and keep my coffee cup in my bag, but have forgotten it a few times when getting a coffee or tea to go. The first time I decided not to get one, but the second time I did and felt incredibly guilty to the point that I didn't really enjoy my drink. I don't think we should feel that having a reusable bottle in itself means we're making enough of a difference, but conversely we shouldn't beat ourselves up if we have the odd slip-up. Even just having one takeaway coffee is better than having one every week and it can be a learning curve, as well.
Buying reusable bags and collecting them also does no favours for anybody, especially given the life cycle of cotton tote bags could outlive plastic bags. In that sense, if you do have cotton bags, make sure you use them as much as possible.
Other easy swaps include reusable cotton pads and beeswax wraps instead of cling film or tin foil, allowing you to cover up leftovers or take some food on the go while being able to reuse the wrap after rinsing it later.
Knowing where to improve
Another major aspect of the attitude shift towards being more sustainable is pinpointing potential challenges and areas where you need improvement. Personally there are two areas where I need to have a complete attitude overhaul - clothing and beauty.
As someone with curly hair, I go through a lot of products and have quite the routine. Beyond shampoo and conditioner, I have at least four other products for styling and maintaining my hair and all of these come in plastic packaging. Some areas have easier swaps than others - shampoo bars have become quite popular lately and do work well, but conditioning bars are less effective in my experience. I think the impetus is also on the beauty industry in this sense, as there are changes they could make to go beyond recycling and more into reusing.
© Charisse Kenion/Unsplash
Lush, for example, does offer shampoo and conditioner bars, as well as a 'collect five black pots and exchange for a face mask' scheme, but there are limits to that. For one, I tend to buy haircare rather than skincare, which means face masks are of no appeal to me. Secondly, perhaps a refillable scheme along the lines of zero-waste grocery stores might be more appealing to customers? Nevertheless, despite my focus on Lush, it should be acknowledged that the company does do more than many more popular beauty brands.
Fast fashion is arguably a bigger issue. I do shop in charity shops and exchange clothing with friends, but inevitably find myself tempted by fast fashion, as facilitated by social media adverts. A secondary issue is that many large brands advertise sustainable lines, but these lines leave you with reasonable doubt as to their effectiveness. Granted, more customers purchasing from sustainable lines shows that there's an increased drive for these products, but all the same, these brands create thousands of clothing items that disappear in time for the next season.
The two solutions often find themselves on different ends of the scale - either you pay more for ethically produced clothes made by smaller and independent brands, often at a cost to reflect the sustainability, or you go to charity shops or second hand shops, where you can find items at a lower cost. Despite having explored both these options, I still find myself tempted by big brands and I think this is where I (and others) need the biggest attitude shift to veer away from convenience and the fast fashion industry.
A multitude of small swaps
Even if I find becoming more sustainable a huge task, I think it's worth doing it bit by bit. You start out with a reusable bottle or a produce bag and then you move on to the next small aspect of your life. Mindfulness seems to be a key aspect to leading a more eco-friendly lifestyle, especially once you reflect on your 'weak areas' and vow to improve them.
I've mainly focused on consumable items here, but it goes beyond that as well. The main thing is to see where you can make quick improvements and then, once in the habit of being more sustainable, focus on challenges. The expression 'your mileage may vary' certainly applies here, as people may find they're less likely to get takeaway coffee but more susceptible to drinking with straws, for instance.
In a way, it is nice to see people focusing on the trend of being more sustainable. It becomes more accessible to all, products are easier to source, and finally, it is indicative of a general paradigm shift towards being more conscious of your consumer habits.
Nathalie Lodhi is an editor and translator for RTL Today, usually not found without her metal water bottle.