Living sustainably can seem overwhelming, with so much information to take in and so many buzz words floating around. The science is complex and there are still many unknowns, so here, we break down some of the issues affecting our planet and offer suggestions on how you can make a difference. You’ll see how easy it is being green!
Sustainability is a holistic term that covers the management of the ecological, economic and social resources required to meet our needs without compromising the needs of future generations. But when it comes to environmental sustainability, what does all the jargon mean? “Eco-friendly,” for instance, is defined as not environmentally harmful, but it’s a bit of a misnomer. So few products and services in the modern world have no environmental impact—almost everything we do or consume has some negative effect. “Green” refers to an effort or end result that preserves environmental quality, as in recycling, biodegradable products or non-polluting actions. It’s always important to read labels carefully and look out for trustworthy symbols, such as Canada Organic, Environmental Choice or Energy Star, to ensure that products or services are actually sustainable and not just “greenwashing” (claiming environmentally responsible practices as a cover for products, policies or actions).
Global production and consumption of energy are the main contributors to climate change, producing around 78 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity. Greenhouse gases absorb outgoing infrared radiation, trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to the greenhouse effect.
Without naturally occurring heat-trapping gases like water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, the Earth would be too cold to sustain life. But three of the gases that cause the most concern are CO2, methane and nitrous oxide because of their association with human activity. The problem with these gases is that they are being released at a higher rate than can be removed or absorbed by natural processes. Reducing your emissions is as easy as eating more meat-free meals, choosing local products, decreasing transport, using energy wisely and consuming less—it might just save you some money, too!
The Plastic Problem
Plastic is produced from oil or natural gas and requires immense energy inputs, resulting in high GHG emissions. Plus, plastic can take centuries to break down, and never truly disappears; instead, it disintegrates into smaller and smaller microplastics.
We’re all familiar with the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.” But did you know there’s a reason they’re listed in that order? The point is that we should first try to reduce consumption, then reuse where possible, and only when things can no longer be used should they be recycled or sent to landfill.
In Canada, only nine percent of plastics are recycled, with the remainder dumped in landfills or incinerators or, worse still, tossed away as litter. And more than a whopping 40 percent of plastics are used only once! Unfortunately, recycling isn’t always as simple as looking for a symbol on your products. Curbside recycling collection varies from place to place, so make sure to check with your municipality to see what items can and can’t be recycled. For instance, black plastic food containers are not recyclable because there’s no stable market for black plastic, meaning it’s costly to sort and financially inefficient when there’s little reward.
One of the most compelling reasons to practice the three Rs, though, is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean (consisting mostly of plastic from land-based activities). The Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t the only one, just the biggest—there are trash vortexes in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, too.
You can make a difference by replacing single-use plastics with reusable ones, choosing products that use less or no packaging and opting for recycled plastics where non-plastic options aren’t available.
In Deep Water
Only three percent of the world’s water is fresh (drinkable), and humans are using it faster than nature can replenish it. Water scarcity affects more than 40 per- cent of people worldwide. Canada is often considered a freshwater-rich country: In an average year, Canadian rivers discharge close to nine percent of the world’s renewable water supply, while we have less than one percent of the global population.
Managing water resources is challenging both nationally and within individual provinces and territories since about 60 percent of freshwater drains north (away from the most populous areas), and because natural fluctuations in rain and snowfall can cause shortages some years and flooding in others. In Canada, there are more than 100 areas, predominantly in First Nations communities, that don’t have clean drinking water. Many of these locales have faced this issue for years or decades. Even within the Great Lakes basin, the world’s largest freshwater lake system, some off-lake areas experience periodic and chronic water shortages.
Overall, residential water use has been declining, which is good, but the average Canadian still uses a staggering 329 litres of water a day—about 35 percent of that is showering and bathing. Reducing water consumption can help prevent local shortages, and can also lead to savings on your water and heating bills.
Waste Not, Want Not
Worldwide, 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year, while almost 2 billion people go hungry or are undernourished. Besides squandering money, time, energy, and resources like water, unused food that ends up in landfills is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases. About 20 percent of Canada’s methane emissions come from landfills. According to one report by Second Harvest, an agency that works to reduce food waste, more than 50 percent of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted.
The cost of avoidable food losses (food that ends up in the compost or garbage, often because we buy too much, cook too much or don’t store it properly) exceeds $49 billion nation ally and more than $1,000 per house hold each year. Unavoidable food losses include waste that can’t be sold or eaten, such as bones, vegetable peels, eggshells, tea bags and coffee grounds.
There are four Rs you can follow to limit food waste in your home. Reduce the amount of food you purchase by planning meals and only buying what you can eat before it spoils. Reuse food by freezing leftovers or using scraps in different ways, for example, using vegetable scraps to make soup stock. Recover food by donating to food pro grams that help people in your community. And lastly, recycle food with a backyard composter or participate in organic waste collection programs.
Measuring Your Ecological Footprint
One way to gauge your impact on the earth is to calculate your ecological footprint. The concept, developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees at the University of British Columbia more than 25 years ago, is used to help individuals, local leaders and countries consistently and effectively measure their resource use and impact. Your footprint is measured in global hectares (gHa) and calculates how much land is needed to sustain your lifestyle by looking at how you consume resources and generate waste (in areas like food, buildings, consumables, waste, transportation and water). The ecological footprint spurred the development of the broader footprint movement, like the carbon footprint, which measures the total GHG emissions that are associated with consumption, including a service or product’s manufacture, use and end-of-life processes. This measure can also be used by individuals, events, organizations and the like to measure their impact on the earth in tonnes of CO2 emitted.