Every new headline about a California wildfire, rare bird extinction, or scientific report projecting global collapse by 2050 evokes a lot of feelings for me.
I’m scared for the future, angry at oil companies who can’t see past their bottom line.
And the politicians they support and admittedly ashamed at me for failing to do anything about it.
Many people might argue that there’s nothing I can do about it.
Change requires geopolitical cooperation, government regulations, and corporate actions, not individual ones.
However, I believe that the actions of individual citizens and consumers are critical in signaling to politicians the issues their voter base is interested in and to corporations the types of products and initiatives consumers are demanding.
Then there’s the question of what doing means.
“Sustainability” is a loaded word and can mean a lot of things.
Actions that seem sustainable may have negative externalities in unforeseen ways.
Actionable Tips for Sustainability
I decided that in my effort to live more sustainably.
I would start by focusing on one thing: reducing the amount of trash I throw out each day.
Simple and tangible.
I imagined a “calorie counter” (think MyFitnessPal) for trash where I could keep track of what I threw out in the trash every day, that would show me how I was trending over time and how I compared with my peers.
From a quick search in the App Store, I couldn’t find anything like this.
I decided to prototype the idea by tracking my trash in a simple spreadsheet for 30 days and analyzing the results.
After the end of the 30 days, I went back and reflected on the results.
My most commonly trashed items were leftovers, food scraps, disposable food containers, paper towels, napkins, plastic wrap, Ziploc bags, toilet paper, and feminine hygiene products.
A significant amount of my trash was produced not at home, but at work or on the go.
I found that the act of tracking my trash in itself motivated me to reduce my trash.
Before, I would go for disposable items without thinking about the alternatives and freely throw things away, but once I started tracking, I was excited to get to as close to zero items per day as possible.
Here are the small but important ways I’ve changed my behavior since this experience, based on what I noticed about my tendencies:
1. Start composting.
Food was a major component of my trash.
Unfortunately, New York City doesn’t provide composting services, but it’s pretty easy to order compost bags, fill your food waste in them, and drop them off to a GrowNYC dropoff site each week (there are 70 sites across the city).
We have extra space in our freezer and keep the compost there so that it doesn’t stink up the apartment.
2. Ask my office to start composting.
I realized that I produced a significant component of my food waste at work — leftovers from store-bought lunches in particular.
There are various commercial composting pickup services in New York City that companies can pay to pick up and drop off their food waste on a regular cadence.
3. Bring food from home.
Every time I purchased a meal for take-out, I had to throw out the used containers that the food was packaged in (even compostable bowls and utensils didn’t help at work because my office wasn’t composting).
Most of my food packaging trash was coming from store-bought lunches at work, so I made a bigger effort to bring my food, in reusable containers.
4. Take smaller portions.
I got excited about catered lunches at work or parties — I’d fill up my plate but would end up wasting half the food. Now I go for smaller portions and refills.
5. Request less food packaging.
Now when I buy food for lunch or pick up takeout dinners, I tell them I don’t need plastic utensils, napkins, or a bag — just the food.
6. Don’t get coffee-to-go.
At some point, I was going on 1–2 “coffee dates” per day at work, and each time getting a coffee or tea to-go, that came in a paper cup, with a plastic lid, and a cardboard sleeve.
I dropped the coffee-cup-in-hand look and instead started ordering coffee to stay, or nothing at all.
7. Bring reusable bags to the grocery store.
Maybe I’m late to the game here, but I started carrying reusable bags in my work backpack so I remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery store.
8. Purchase reusable kitchen products.
A large portion of my trash at home was coming from ancillary kitchen products like paper towels and Ziploc bags.
I discovered all of the amazing reusable kitchen products out there to help me reduce non-food kitchen waste.
Cloth napkins replace paper towels, Stasher’s reusable silicone bags replace Ziploc bags, and Earthling’s reusable food covers replace plastic wrap.
9. Use hand dryers in public restrooms, not paper towels.
My office didn’t have a hand dryer, so I requested we get one.
Without one, every time I washed my hands at work after using the bathroom, I’d use a paper towel to wipe my hands.
10. Bamboo toilet paper?
It’s a thing I discovered at my yoga studio. Not as soft but 100% biodegradable. I’m planning to make the switch soon.
11. Try using a menstrual cup.
Hopefully, this will help me say goodbye to disposable period products.
Some people have argued that boycotting airplanes is the most environmentally impactful action an individual can take.
Currently, I don’t see any equivalent alternatives in place yet to help me travel long distances in a short amount of time, but I’m seriously inspired by 17-year old Greta Thunberg’s decision to travel long distances by boat, bus, or train.
All we have to do is wake up and change. Greta Thunberg
In the meantime, I’m continuing to try and discover other ways I can lead a greener lifestyle in my day-to-day life. All ideas are welcome
Mansi Kothari like contemporary art, crossword puzzles, and fitness challenges. I’m optimistic about the future, and the role of technology in shaping it.