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Are Small Acts of Sustainability Really Making a Difference?

by Kayla Kirby

Oftentimes, when starting a new practice like sustainability, it can be difficult to know just how much our small actions can make an impact. Everyday, we have the choice to make decisions that will positively or negatively affect our planet. Most of us already take positive steps toward a green future, but it can still feel overwhelming to take the extra step forward.

Sustainability is often about balance, and to practice it is to aid in bringing steady improvement to our environment and the ecosystem around us. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

While it may feel overwhelming at first to prioritize something as complex as sustainability, I’m often reminded that the path to living a more sustainable life is, more often than not, simpler than we might think. And to those, myself included, who wonder if small acts of sustainability really do make a difference, the answer is yes, they do!

Here are some ways we can start making an impact today, and how they really do make a difference.

Reducing Water Usage

Taking a hot, steamy shower is my number one way to unwind after a long, stressful day. It may be relaxing, water usage can really add up. According to Harvard, a standard shower head uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. The average American showers for 8 minutes total, so a standard shower uses roughly 20 gallons of water. 

If you’re wondering how much a gallon of water really is, if translated to weight, it weighs a little over 20 lbs. So, if you cut back on your daily shower by just one minute per day, you could save 2.5 gallons of water, which equals over 51 lbs – every day. Over the course of a week (assuming you shower daily) you would save 17.5 gallons of water, which over the span of an entire year would be 912.5 gallons. That alone equals 45 8-minute showers, a shocking statistic.

You can also reduce water usage by turning off the faucet while you wash your hands, brush your teeth, and wash dishes. Getting into a consecutive habit of doing so is pretty easy, and once you start to do so it will catch on quickly.

Recycling

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a saying we’ve all heard. It’s catchy, and something most of us already do. While recycling is a common practice, and while it can make a large impact on the environment, how much waste does it really reduce? 

To get a more realistic understanding of how recycling can positively impact the environment, here are some statistics from Stanford: “The paper, glass, metals, plastic, and organic material [the university] recycled in 2016 saved a total of about 70,481 million BTUs of energy; enough energy to power nearly 613 homes for one year. Or said another way, conserved 12,131 barrels of oil or 567,3014 gallons of gasoline.” And, “by recycling over 2303 tons of paper last year” alone, they “saved 32,115 trees.” That’s pretty remarkable.

If you already recycle while you’re out and about, recycling at home is also a great way to continue. If you don’t have curbside or doorside recycling, you can definitely check out drop off centers nearby. A simple Google search will give you all the details you need, and if you’re in New York, here’s a helpful guide. Additionally, here are some answers to common questions about recycling provided by the EPA.

Using Reusable Packaging

Single-use packaging – for food, drink, and groceries, to start – is something we can work on reducing today. For starters, we can, and should, reuse our grocery bags. According to a 2018 Danish study, we should use paper bags up to 43 times and polyester bags 37 times, compared to that of a standard plastic bag. So while purchasing sturdy, reusable bags, like Baggu, is also a good practice, if we do use a bag at the grocery store, there’s no reason we can’t reuse it. 

This extends to using reusable containers for food and drink as well. Here’s a list of our favorite sustainable water bottles, and some travel bottles that will help you give back. If you’re apprehensive about uprooting your habits to go green , getting in the habit of using reusable bottles for water, coffee, tea, and other beverages is a great place to start. And while it’s not always possible to use reusable packaging for food, making it your norm, especially when bringing food out into the world from your home, is easier than you may think. BPA-free containers are always a great place to start, like this set from Amazon.

Reducing Plastic Use

In grade school most of my food was packed in a plastic bag, placed nicely in a lunch box, or bag, opened at lunchtime, eaten, and then discarded in a cafeteria garbage can, never to be thought of or seen again. This was the norm, and still is for soe. It can be easy to take habits from your childhood and carry them into what you do today, and while single-use plastic is frequently used, it can be avoided most of the time with minimal effort. 

Shockingly, “only 14% of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling after use and vast quantities escape into the environment. This not only results in a loss of USD 80 to 120 billion per year, but if the current trend continues, there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050.” (who said this? cite) This report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation also explains a bit more. 

Plastic straws specifically, which you can learn about in this detailed guide, are a big part of the problem. But we can easily buy other types of straws, like metal or bamboo, to use at home and while traveling or commuting into work. Here’s a good steel starter pack from Amazon.

Sustainability is exceedingly important for a healthy planet, and by taking small steps toward a more sustainable future we can help the environment more than we think. So shorten that shower, recycle that plastic bottle, reuse that paper bag, and buy that steel pack of straws, and remember: even by taking just one small step toward sustainability, you’re still taking a step in the right direction.

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