Musings

5 strategies for improving your personal sustainability performance at home

With the pandemic requiring over half of the workers in the United States to work from home, many are facing untold challenges. From caring for kids or a new quarantine puppy to maintaining basic sanity amid a stressful year, there are so many things to worry about that sustainability might be the last thing on peoples’ minds.

And while remote work offers plenty of environmental benefits — such as a reduced carbon footprint from an eliminated commute — there are plenty of opportunities for people to improve their own personal sustainability performance at home. With a quarter of Americans expected to continue to work from home through the end of 2021 and remote work culture likely to continue in some capacity in perpetuity, we must all figure out how to do our part for the planet from the comfort of our homes.

The stakes are higher than ever: our planetary plastic crisis is mounting, 2020 was one of the warmest years on record, and scientists warn we’re on the brink of a biodiversity catastrophe. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to improve our personal sustainability performance at home. Here are five things you can do right now to achieve just that:

1. Choose beauty and self-care products that also care for the earth

Self-care is more important than ever. Yet many common personal care products come with significant impacts — namely, microplastics. Microplastics enter the environment both in the products we use, such as facial scrubs and soaps, and as a result of larger plastic items breaking down, including discarded toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles, and the 2 billion plastic razors that end up in our landfills each year.

Consider trying out some more sustainable alternatives to meet your self-care goals. Unilever, which owns several major personal care brands such as Dove and Colgate, has committed to creating a waste-free world by cutting plastic waste and embracing circularity in its products. Likewise, innovative sustainable brands are reimagining what a zero-waste self-care routine can look like, such as sustainable shampoo company Ethique, plastic-free toothpaste and dental floss company Bite, and responsible beauty company Bliss.

2. Rethink your morning coffee ritual

Yes, even coffee isn’t without social and environmental consequences. The growing global demand for coffee is driving deforestation, with 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America having been cleared to make way for coffee farming, according to WWF. Some 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are also major coffee producers.

Meanwhile, coffee farmers in developing countries receive only 10 percent of the retail price of the product. Competition among growers has led to price reductions and undercutting, which leaves growers with no safety margin when the supply drops or unpredictable weather hits. Growers often aren’t treated well and may work in poor conditions, all for a lot less than the coffee is sold for.

When buying coffee, consider its origin and farming method by looking for options that have earned fair trade certification. Consider investing in a reusable coffee filter, which saves trees each time you make a cup. Keurig fans might try swapping out single-use pods for reusable K Cups, or consider compostable alternatives. If you prefer iced coffee, homemade cold brew is simple to make, tastes good, and spares plastic cups and straws. And if you prefer to pay a visit to the local coffee shop, remember to bring reusable thermos.

3. Clean up your cleaning products

Keeping your home office clean shouldn’t come at the planet’s expense. Fortunately, brands like Seventh Generation and Method are pioneering eco-friendly cleaning sprays and soaps made with recycled packaging and plant-based ingredients. For your spill-soaking and counter-wiping needs, the Australian company Who Gives a Crap makes forest-friendly paper towels and eco-friendly toilet paper out of bamboo, sugarcane, and recycled fibers. The strongest sustainability enthusiasts might want to check out chic, refillable zero waste cleaning kits and reusable paper towels that are washing machine friendly.

4. Reduce your screen time emissions

Working from home means we’re all spending a little too much time staring at screens — and this comes with a high carbon cost. From sending emails to Instagramming, online activity collectively consumes high amounts of energy. Internet activity causes 3.5 percent of global emissions — a number which is expected to double by 2025.

And while enjoying your favorite binge-worthy show on Netflix or HBO comes with an environmental price — the data centers that host the world’s streaming services are highly energy-intensive — this will continue to improve as more companies commit to powering data centers with renewable energy. Netflix and HBO both use Amazon Web Services, which in 2019 announced the construction of three new wind farms as part of its goal toward 100 percent renewable energy, and just this week, Netflix declared its own commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2022.  

5. Say farewell to food waste

Even before the pandemic, food waste was a major global problem. WWF estimates that one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. That’s equal to about 1.3 billion tons of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, seafood, and grains that either never leave the farm, get lost or spoiled during distribution, or are thrown away in hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and home kitchens. From a social perspective, this is a major travesty — this could be enough calories to feed every undernourished person on the planet.

But food waste is also a major environmental concern — wasting food means also wasting all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. Additionally, if food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces methane — a greenhouse gas even stronger than carbon dioxide. In total, about 11 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system could be reduced if we stopped wasting food.

To address this, a little planning goes a long way. A grocery list ensures you buy only the food you need; when you cook an abundance, reheat leftovers for lunch instead of sliding them into the trash bin. To actively address food waste, Imperfect Foods’ grocery delivery service delivers organic produce with “quirky looks and odd shapes” to your doorstep, saving millions of pounds of food from the landfill. And whether you have a big backyard or tiny apartment, find a compost option that works for you.

Personal sustainability is a journey, and not a destination. Given constraints of cost, choice, and convenience, sustainable living often means embracing imperfection. In your home office and beyond, incorporating the sustainable living habits that both bring you joy and improve your personal sustainability performance. Your future self — and future generations — will thank you.

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