Armchair Travels Healthyish

Earth Day 2020: Reflecting on Environmental Sustainability

Happy Earth Day! Part of how I’m dealing with #QuarantineLife is by doing daily gratitudes, and today I wanted to express my gratefulness for this beautiful, amazing, complicated planet that we live on. So to honor Mother Nature, I wanted to write about my family’s journey towards a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.

A couple weeks ago, just as we were gearing up for Tennessee’s #StayAtHome order, our yard badly needed to be mowed. The grass was at least six inches high, and we hadn’t heard from our lawn guy since the fall; we didn’t know if he’d been impacted by the tornados or if/when our lawn might get mowed. Every day, as more Covid news came in, the situation seeming more dire with every death, the grass just kept growing, and even though I don’t really care about our yard, it really was starting to look bad. I would stare at our shaggy yard from the kitchen window, shaking my head. Until one day, I noticed a pop of color that wasn’t usually there. When I went out to investigate, I noticed a fully bloomed red tulip. We have never had a tulip in our front yard. I have no idea how this thing got here. But it was so beautiful, and I kept finding my eyes drawn to the window. I was glad, then, that the lawn guy hadn’t called us back yet, or this flower may never have sprouted.

And it made me think… what if this global pandemic was Mother Nature’s way of telling us to slow our roll, the chill out, and take a break? What if this virus was the planet’s way of dealing with its most demanding species? What if some good may come out of all of this bad?

Pollution is dropping world-wide. Wildlife has re-emerged. Fewer cars are on the roads and planes in the skies. Lots of positive effects of this disastrous plague. I hope that we are able to embrace them, and when we’re able to return to some level of normalcy, that our expectations for our impact on the environment do not go back to how they were. I hope that we are able to learn from this experience, see how much better the planet could be if we worked harder at protecting it. I hope that we all will see more unexpected tulips.

We only get one planet, so we have to work together to take care of her. Let’s use Earth Day as a day of gratitude for what Mother Nature gives us and reflect on how we can take care of her in return. 

• • •

When I was a kid, I received a book for Christmas one year called “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth” and for a brief period of my childhood, I was madly devoted to the idea of environmentalism. I wanted to do whatever I could to save the animals, to save the trees, to save the planet. 

For many years, afterwards, I allowed that fervor to fall flat and let myself get lazy and wasteful. But with climate change posing depressing questions about our future, and the onslaught of distressing data about what we’re doing to our planet, I’ve become reinvigorated over the last several years to do better. 

I have read some fascinating, eye-opening, and inspiring books about the environmental issues that we face. Learning about the trash industry made me want to reduce how much we tossed and gave me respect for the people who handle our garbage. After digging deep into recycling and waste management (and the effects of food production on the environment, and how the changing climate will affect food supply in the future), I decided we needed to focus on prevention and reduction of waste before relying on recycling. And learning about the secondhand market (and how much of our crap ends up in landfills) has made me rethink how we buy and consume. 

So how have we tried to improve our sustainability efforts, reduce our waste, and lower our carbon footprint?

  1. Reusable coffee filter: We drink a LOT of coffee in this house. So when we upgraded our coffee pot a few years ago, we got one with a washable filter.
  2. No more wrapping paper: Wrapping presents was always a joyful task in my family; disguising gifts in large or odd-sized packages before wrapping (sometimes with multiple layers of tape and paper). But most wrapping paper is not recyclable. It’s just going into the trash. So I will not buy wrapping paper anymore. Now, I reuse gift bags that I’ve received or the cloth gift bags that Amazon provides. I also use Amazon boxes! This past Christmas was the first holiday I was able to NOT wrap a single gift under our tree, and I couldn’t have been happier! I haven’t yet resorted to what my brother does, though: bring each gift out individually in a backpack for the person to unzip. 🤣 
  3. Produce bags and cloth shopping bags: As more countries and states plan to ban single-use plastic bags, I envision a future where we’ll all be shopping with reusable bags. Here’s hoping our grandchildren won’t even understand the concept of a single-use plastic bag. 
  4. Reusable straws: We have metal, glass and silicone straws of varying lengths and girths. A straw for every occasion! #StopSucking
  5. Recycle better: Recycling is actually more of a last-ditch effort (after reducing your waste and reusing what you have), but it’s one that we are fastidious about. We recycle everything we can, regularly taking what isn’t allowed or doesn’t fit in our three recycle bins to the local recycle site, and we’re careful about not putting non-recyclable items in the bins.
  6. Donate or give instead of throwing away: I can’t tell you the number of times I do a Goodwill drop off. (Learning about how Goodwill works and how the secondhand market operates was fascinating and reassuring!) But I’ve recently learned about Freecycling and have given away several things we no longer need or want as well. I’m all about lengthening the lifespan of goods, and keeping them out of landfills for as long as possible.
  7. Cloth diapering: One of the best decisions we’ve made! Sure, it’s more time consuming and effortful than using traditional trash-bound diapers, but they are cheaper in the long run and better for the planet. A baby will go through 3500-7000 diapers before they are potty trained! (Even when comparing water usage, you can use less water to wash your diapers than what was used to create the diapers you’re tossing into landfills, which will remain there for 500 years. And using HE washers/dryers or line drying helps with concerns about energy consumption). Cloth diapers can also be used for multiple children (I was lucky enough to receive dozens of pre-loved diapers to start my stash)! Plus, cloth diapers are way cuter than disposables. 🙂
  8. Cloth napkins: Since having a baby, we’re finding ourselves wiping things up very often, which means we were going through a lot of paper towels. It felt like half of our trash was paper towels. So we’ve switched to cloth napkins and have cut down on our trash dramatically!  I just toss them in with the cloth diaper laundry to make it easy.
  9. Fewer showers: Hear me out. As we both work from home, and often go a day or two (or more) without seeing other humans, we don’t need to shower every day. Daily showers can actually lead to many skin and hair issues. The husband and I tend to shower every 2-3 days depending on our activities and social obligations. Thanks to Covid, we have no IRL social interactions and even fewer reasons to shower. 😉 
  10. Drive less: Again, as two remote workers, we don’t have to leave the house often, so we are able to get away with having just one car. Even before the quarantine, we might go a day or two without leaving our property. When we do go out, we try to stay local as much as possible, creating efficient errand loops around our neighborhood. 
  11. Use less toilet paper: This one is on me. I’ve always been bad about TP usage, so we finally bought a bidet attachment! This thing is life changing and I will never go back. We didn’t even get a fancy one like my brother has (heated seat, dry cycles, hot water, etc.) but I’m in love. We use a little TP or cloth napkins to dry, and voila. The massive inventory of TP that we have should last until the next quarantine. 😛 

We’ve strived to make many environmentally friendly changes around our home, and I’m quite proud of the progress we’ve made. There are weeks when we forget to take the trash down to the street, but it doesn’t even matter since we only have one bag of trash; things like that make me really happy. I’m still pretty bad about turning off lights and letting water run too long, but I’m getting better. This is a process.

We are works in progress, and I hope that some of our sustainable efforts will cancel out my laziness or thoughtlessness. Of course, there are things that I know we just won’t ever do. For example, we are not outdoorsy people and therefore will never have a garden. We don’t live in a place that easily supports walking over driving, therefore we need a car. Travel will always be a part of our lives, so we’ll have to reckon with the impact of how we travel. 

But we don’t have to be perfect in order to do good. 

It’s like with any diet or fitness program. It’s not all or nothing. Splurging on cake doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile to eat some broccoli. Three days of missing your step count doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do some yoga tomorrow. Remember: 1% improvements add up over time. Every little bit counts.

Each year, in addition to my personal, professional and family goals, I want to set Green Goals. I’m eager to sign up for a composting service to help us cut down our waste even more; my goal is to need a bigger compost can than trash can in the kitchen. We try to avoid single use plastic, but that’s harder to do than it sounds. I’m interested in learning more about reusable wrappers and baggies in the kitchen. I want to regularly donate to tree planting organizations to offset how much we travel. I’m pushing for us to reuse more of what we have and participate in the secondhand market buying products that have already been made before turning to new products (which  take more water and electricity to produce and will one day end up in a landfill). And of course, I want to learn as much as I can about humanity’s impact on Mother Nature and how individuals can help make it better.

What cool sustainable practices has your family embraced? How have you worked to lower your carbon footprint? What environmental concerns are you most passionate about? Tell me how you love and give back to our planet!

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