Things I say that make the people closest to me want to stab me in the face (A post about sustainability and waste)

Things I say that make the people closest to me want to stab me in the face (A post about sustainability and waste)

Earlier this year, I lived in a tiny 500 square-foot studio by myself. While there, I was able to to shape my lifestyle completely by my own standards. Among pairing down what I owned to the bare minimum, I also had a few habits that my fellow Americans may find a little hippie-dippy:

  • I went six months without buying a single roll of paper towels.
  • I made most of my own bath products—soap and shaving cream, primarily. I used castile soap to wash my dishes and my clothes.
  • Everything I purchased from the grocery store was packaged in glass or cardboard. No plastic.
  • I recycled ziplock bags and used towels and rubber bands to cover food.
  • I didn’t own an AC unit.

So disappearing to Southeast Asia for three months amplified these habits tenfold. Their ridiculous use of plastic products combined with the fact that they just didn’t have most of the resources Americans have in excess made me super cognizant of how much we consume as a human species, particularly in the United States. So when I returned home, I was super careful with what I said to friends about lifestyle choices, especially since I was moving back in with roommates. And as much as I care about the environment, I also like co-existing with people.

Well, after being back for a couple months, I’ve got some grievances to air. This post is dedicated to consumerism and capitalism, because y’all make it really difficult for most people to lead sustainable lives.

But first, a disclaimer

I am just as much a perpetrator of destroying the environment as anyone else reading this. When I’m super thirsty, I’ll buy bottled drinks. There have been several times this past week I’ve opted to order an Uber rather than take public transportation because I was either running late or an Uber was simply cheaper than taking the CTA. I’ve knocked over several pieces of coral in endangered areas because I’m a shitty swimmer. Two minutes ago, I placed my clothes in a dryer. And I bought the last roll of paper towels for my apartment, because seriously, I like coexisting with people.

But as a society, we really don’t have to be so wasteful. Convenience makes it easy to be wasteful, and as technology continues to progress, it’s just going to make it easier to be assholes to the Earth. This isn’t a call to action for you to change your life, just some food for thought to ponder over.

Shout out to The Financial Diet

Last week I stumbled across this video from The Financial Diet, which triggered the uproar that I’m currently throwing onto all of you:

Chelsea from TFD calls out seven things that Americans do more than the rest of the world. While she primarily focuses on financial costs, I want to call out environmental costs. Here are the seven topics she covers in her video:

  1. Eating too much meat
  2. Fast fashion obsession
  3. Purchasing things we don’t use
  4. Huge houses
  5. Keeping things ice cold
  6. Not cooking
  7. Always needing new things

Eating Too Much Meat

The Problem:

Purchasing meat doesn’t just jack up the cost of your grocery bill; it also contributes to an unhealthy supply chain and encourages corporations to continue investing in mass production.

Perhaps I read too many Michael Pollen books or watched too many Michael Moore documentaries in my early 20s, but America’s obtuse consumption of meat impacts the environment in a couple different ways:

  1. Raising animals for the consumption of humans increases the amount of feed required to raise livestock, increasing agricultural output by about 40% in industrialized countries. This increases the amount of land and energy required to produce feed for animals alone.
  2. Ignoring the living and harvesting conditions of these animals, the amount of livestock required to feed humans accounts for 6 to 7% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 and CH4). In the United States, 42 percent of agricultural emissions come from animal agriculture. The average percentage of agricultural emissions from other countries is between 14.5 percent and 18 percent, but if you look at the quantity of the energy expended per human in the U.S. compared to other countries, we emit 16.5 metric tons per person per year compared to a worldwide average of about five metric tons..
  3. Most greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. result from transportation. A third of our total emissions come from power plants and transportation—driving animals from factory farms to  your local grocery store.


A Solution

American beef consumption is four times higher than the world’s average, but we don’t need to be eating meat with every single meal. Limit your meat consumption to 3 oz. or less per day, or one meal per day.

I personally have stopped buying meat at the grocery store and only eat meat when I go out to restaurants (which I’m trying to limit to only 1-2 times per week, though it usually ends up being closer to 2-3 times per week).


Fast Fashion Obsession

The Problem:

As an American woman, the importance of staying stylish and fashionable has been shoved into my psyche since birth. We are judged on how good we look. Fine.

However, much like the greenhouse emission meat issue, the energy used to rotate retail inventory (because let’s face it, most of the clothes on your body was made in a factory on the other side of the world) impacts the environment. Cotton—the most commonly used fabric for clothing—requires the same amount of water that the average human consumes in 2.5 years to make one shirt.

Not only that, most U.S. retailers are unable to regulate the working conditions of the factories in which the clothes are manufactured.


The Solution:

The good news is that, like food production, there has been a shift in the past decade at more sustainable and ethical supply chain practices in retail. The first step to being more environmentally and ethically conscious in your shopping habits is to be more selective about the places in which you shop.

Of course, stores that tout more sustainable production processes also tout a higher price point. A creative way to tackle this problem is to either make your own clothes (it’s possible, my friend Simone does it, and I’m insanely jealous) or to hit up thrift shops and yard sales.

However, I would caution taking the yard sale approach. In the past two months, I’ve almost doubled my wardrobe size from perusing yard sales around the city (what can I say, I got bored wearing the same 4 outfits while I was traveling and went overboard). However, I haven’t spent more than $4 per article of clothing ($60 total) sooooo….


Purchasing things we don’t use

The Problem:

I’ll defer to you all to watch the video and learn more about this, but a huge trend nowadays are for Americans to subscribe to services like Bark Box and Shop the Runway, which sends you personally curated products for an affordable price of less than $10/month or something like that. It’s all the rage in our e-commerce obsessed Convenience Culture minds, and retailers have picked up on that trend.

I personally don’t subscribe to any of this because I hate owning things that take up space, but I do have a monthly subscription to one looming thing that I don’t use: a daytime climbing gym membership ($39/mo).

I had such high aspirations to go to the gym 2-3 times a week and get ripped and be climbing outdoors like a friggin’ pro by next summer, but seriously, the last time I went to the gym was over three weeks ago.

The Solution:

There’s no environmental lesson here. Just a lot of indignant sighing on my part. Most subscription-based plans rely on most of their consumers to sign up and forget to use their services (hello, Moviepass!). And many more rely on our dependence on convenience to forego the cancellation process. Case in point, a NYTimes online monthly subscription is $7.50 a month. I was happy to pay that when I was working full time, but now that I’m a freelancer counting pennies without health insurance, $7.50 is a third of my monthly transportation budget. $7.50 is $90 per year. $7.50 is a plane ticket to see my parents for Christmas. But to cancel that monthly subscription, I had to sit on hold on the phone for 30 minutes and explain to two people why I could no longer afford a monthly subscription. It took me three tries to cancel due to my impatience.

As I said, no environmental lesson here.

Huge Houses

The Problem:

If you’ve ever traveled outside the U.S., there are two things you immediately notice: How much space Americans use, and how much space is in between all of the things that Americans use.

When I was in my studio apartment, the utilities I paid for included electricity and internet. Electric was $20/month and internet was $30/month. Heat (via radiator) and water/sewage came with rent.

In my larger, three-bedroom, shared apartment, electricity is typically $60-90 per month depending on if we’re using the AC. In the winter, heat is $80-90 per month. Your utility bill is proportional to the size of your living quarters.

I recently read an article about how a New York City lawyer who made $200k+ only paid $55/mo on utilities, and everyone in the comments section was freaking out about how much cheaper her electric and gas bill was compared to say, someone living in the suburbs of Georgia.

I’ll say it again. Your utility bill is proportional to the size of your living quarters.

The Solution:

I don’ know—get used to living in smaller spaces? This is a hard thing to suggest because I know how engrained it is in our culture to have all the space for all the things. As I said before, this post is dedicated to consumerism and capitalism. A lifetime of being accustomed to this way of living is hard to break.

But here’s an interesting article about how our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult. It’s less about the size of our houses and more about the distances between where we live from each other, but it’s still a good read.

Keeping Things Cold

The Problem:

One of my closest friends reads this blog, so I’ll say this to her: I love you, and I’m 100% acknowledging how much of an asshole I was being when this anecdote occurred. I don’t blame you, I blame the system.

So a group of us were hanging out at a friend’s apartment, and their AC happened to be blasting pretty harshly. It was obvious that most of us were cold, so my friend, being the nice host that she was suggested we open the window to let some hot air in.

I will say that the AC controls were across the entire apartment and the window was right there. But the TFD video was haunting me, so I just HAD to drop the fact that Americans consume more energy in air conditioning than the rest of the world does on electricity combined. She gave me a look and pointed to where the AC controls were. (I was still too lazy to get up and do anything, it was another friend that got up and finally adjusted the AC temperature.)

But seriously. Americans are accustomed to everything being cold. And it’s not just a convenience thing—our bodies are actually physically acclimated to keeping a comfortable temperature.

Something that I noticed happening to a lot of Westerners while I was traveling was that they would actually get sick when they traveled from their temperature-controlled climates to places that didn’t have AC. Or (which happened to me), they would go weeks without AC and then splurge on a place that had AC and catch a cold which kept them down for a week.

The Solution:

Humans are an adaptable species. It may suck, but if you wean yourself off of air-conditioning, after a few days, you get used to it. In fact, people who are used to the comfort of AC tend to get sick more easily.

Americans spend more on air-conditioning than the rest of the world spends on electricity combined. Let that sink in.


Not Cooking

The Problem:

This again loops back to problem #1, consumption of meat. I’ll admit that part of me enjoys lecturing you, but I also don’t want to beat a dead horse (I’d rather ride a high horse…right?…uh…). No big sustainability-related findings here, except that you’re more likely to know where your food comes from when you’re cooking it. Oh, and stop eating pre-packaged foods. Preservatives are bad for you.

The Solution:

If you care about where your food comes from, cook it. Because it’s exhausting to try to vet every restaurant you go to for where they source their food.

Always Needing New Things

The Problem and the Solution:

This final point relates back to problem #2, the Fast Fashion Obsession, and the sustainability of the supply chain and ethical considerations.

I won’t repeat what I wrote—you either care or you don’t.

In Conclusion?

Again, I will say that none of this is an attack on any individual. Americans (and most of the world) are pushed into a culture of desire. The desire to be successful, the desire to own things, the desire to have a higher net worth than your neighbor.

To make things even more complex, as Americans, we have options for the type of career we want to pursue. We’re a large country and there is no shortage of lawyers, doctors, developers, entrepreneurs, artists, marketers, teachers, service technicians, bloggers. If you have the resources and the street smarts, you can literally make a job up and convince people to give you money for it.

Meanwhile, there are populations of people in countries that depend on call centers, factories, and crappy tourist traps to make a living.

If everyone chooses to practice sustainability in their lives, people will lose their jobs.

If people don’t start prioritizing sustainability, humans won’t have the natural resources to stay alive.

You can’t just make one decision without feeling the impact, positive or negative, elsewhere.

So what’s the purpose of this post? It’s mainly to make you think, because there’s really no 100% right or wrong answer.

Most of my friends in the U.S. have asked me if non-Americans are as outraged about Trump as we are. But the truth is, most people I met overseas don’t care about Trump. Most people, instead, wonder how Americans can be so extravagant and wasteful. And many more wish they were American.

Consumerism and capitalism.

Food for thought. Here are some photos I took around Asia. Obviously, they have their own environmental issues. With every beautiful landmark, there was a literal burning pile of garbage within eyesight.

While I would love everyone reading this to take one or two steps towards leading a more sustainable life, if nothing about this post encourages you to do so, at the very least, don’t litter.

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