Let’s get straight to the point: saving the planet calls for drastic measures. Every small step counts – separating your rubbish, avoiding plastic straws, eating less meat, and buying conscious fashion and beauty items all make a difference. However, according to Babette Porcelijn, author of The Hidden Impact, we can still do more.
Together with a group of experts and the Dutch independent research agency CE Delft, Porcelijn analysed the worldwide ecosystem and our influence upon it. That is how she came to an ‘Impact Top 10’ of our daily life
Our lifestyle – often unintentionally – has an unprecedented impact. A new laptop, a holiday to Bali and even a night of watching Netflix series causes damage. According to Porcelijn, the biggest problem is ‘the hidden impact’ that we do not see.
Say you buy a phone. Not necessarily that destructive for the environment, you might assume? Well, before you have it in your hands, already a great deal has happened. Think about the extraction of raw materials, the utilisation of toxins and emissions of CO² in the manufacturing and transport process. And so, for the greater part, our impact takes place without us being aware of it.
So, what can you do to live as sustainably as possible?
If you want to live a more sustainable life, it is a good idea to look at everything you eat and drink. Unfortunately, the hidden damage of food production is massive – deforestation for agriculture, pollution caused by pesticides, and tremendous amounts of water and energy usage. This, even before you cook at home.
The biggest damage comes from industrial meat production, especially beef. Porcelijn says one meat eater uses the same amount of land as three to seven vegetarians and 12 to 20 vegans. The way animals are fed and kept is not only cruel but also bad news for the environment. The production of animal feed hijacks lots of agricultural land and the emissions of greenhouse gases from the livestock are 23 times worse than CO².
The same goes for milk products and eggs, however, we tend to eat relatively smaller portions of those. According to 2017 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), South Africa has the 16th highest per-capita consumption of beef and veal in the world.
If becoming a vegetarian is not for you, this is how you can reduce your impact
- Eat vegetarian meals more often during the week. With one day of not eating beef, for example, 1 800 litres of water is saved.
- Only buy meat from South Africa, and ideally from a local farmer. South American beef has the biggest impact on the Amazonian rainforest.
- Purchase organic meat and eat smaller portions.
- If you do not waste any food at home and do not buy unnecessary amounts of food and finish your leftovers, you reduce your environmental impact by 15%.
What can you do?
Porcelijn says that giving up eating meat can make a big contribution. ‘Well, becoming vegetarian or vegan is the best,’ she says. ‘By doing this, you can reduce your contribution to pollution. Per kilo of beef you eat less, you save 15 000 litres of water, 250m² of agricultural land and 25kg of grains. Eventually, we will able to return to a situation in which it is fine to eat red meat once a week. However, this will only be possible when livestock farming becomes circular and cows only eat grass in places where it originally grows,’ says Porcelijn.
The burning of gas is very harmful to people and the environment because of the emissions of CO² and nitrogen. Building a new house also has a massive impact. Porcelijn calculates that, during the building of a new house, the equivalent of 15 to 20 years of heating is used! The bigger the house, the more energy is necessary.
Clever tips to minimise energy usage at home:
- Insulate your house well to avoid heating and air-con usage.
- Replace light bulbs and halogen lights with LED lights – you can reduce your electricity usage at 11%
- Research creative sustainable solutions – a green roof, for example.
- Choose green power or solar panels.
- Find out if you can stop using gas.
- When building a house, choose the most sustainable methods and materials.
What can you do?
By closing the doors and by turning the thermostat and/or air-con on low during the night, you reduce the emission of CO². Additionally, by not putting your devices on standby and turning them off, you can save up to 130 kilos of CO² per year. Also, having a smaller house reduces energy usage. ‘Ask yourself how much space you really need, and why you would need a bigger house,’ says Porcelijn.
Number one in the Impact Top 10 of Porcelijn’s research is ‘stuff’ – things, items, objects…Everything you have to pack if you are moving – your phone, laptop, furniture, crockery, vacuum cleaner, power drill. The impact of electronics is massive – especially in relation to the production process. Mining for scarce raw materials is huge: it comes with deforestation and pollution. The harm has, in fact, already taken place before you buy something in the first place.
Also, the use of Neflix is more harmful than you might expect. Data centres use a lot of energy and it is estimated that for 1GB, 200 litres of cooling water is used.
What can you do?
The question should be: What can I do if the pollution has already taken place? ‘We feel powerless, but more than half of the problem can be solved by the consumer. It helps to purchase as few new things as possible. You reduce the impact drastically by using the things you already have as long as possible or to recycle. In this way you reduce water and energy usage.’
Ways to reduce your impact:
- Donate everything you do not use to a thrift store.
- Purchase second-hand or upcycled as much as you can.
- Return broken things, so that materials can be reused.
- If you buy a new laptop, choose one that you can use for a long period of time.
- Share your belongings where possible. A power drill, for example, is easy to share with your neighbours.
- Watch your data usage. Clean up your phone and laptop regularly and try to binge less on Netflix.
Over the years we have become used to buying new clothes whenever we feel like it – and this is taking its toll on the environment. Approximately 2,5% of all available agricultural is planted with cotton. This monoculture can distort biodiversity, and artificial fertiliser and pesticides pollute the air.
Additionally, in a later stage of the production process, the chemicals used to dye clothing are often damaging. Washing and drying at home also has an impact – not only the amount of water used, but the fibres of synthetic clothing contribute to the emergence of ‘plastic soup’.
In the UK alone, research from American Express reveals that Brits are investing about R20 107 a year on new clothes. The average woman owns 95 items of clothing and only wears 59% of them regularly. We need to adopt ‘slow fashion’ behaviour – sensibly investing in a few quality pieces and wearing them for years. Watch Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets to find out more about how fast fashion is negatively impacting the environment.
Shopaholic? This is how you can shop more consciously:
- Only buy items that you’ll like for at least 10 years.
- Get into vintage shopping and host a clothes-swap party with your friends.
- Help fashion giants to become sustainable by buying their conscious lines.
- Avoid buying things you are not 100% certain about.
- Take a look at your wardrobe – are there any items you can style differently?
- Take everything you do not wear to a thrift store or sell, exchange or donate it to a charity.
- Preferably choose recycled cotton, recycled wool or Tencel. These fabrics have the lowest environmental impact.
- Wash your clothing less often and on a low temperature with less detergent. By wash on 30°C, you save 30 kilos of CO² per year.
- If you dry your clothing on a washing line and do not use your dryer, you can save 120 kilos of CO² a year.
What can you do?
Critically evaluate your buying behaviour. How much do you buy? And how often do you wear each clothing item? You can buy better by choosing sustainably produced clothing or second-hand items,’ says Porcelijn. ‘What is even more effective is to simply buy less. When you purchase something new, choose a good fabric and use it for a long time – and I mean really long (at least 10 to 20 years).’
It goes without saying that hot showers or taking long baths are relaxing. But, according to Parks Tau, the President of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), ‘Average water consumption in South Africa is 235 litres per capita per day compared to a world average of 185.’ To put it into perspective, in Cape Town, residents are urged to use 70 litres of water or less per day. The impact pf showering is mostly related to the usage of gas to heat the water as the emissions are very damaging to the environment.
How to make your bathroom behaviour more sustainable:
- Skip bathing. One bath has more or less the same impact as three showers.
- Scrub or lather yourself before you step into or turn on the shower.
- Close the tap when you brush your teeth.
- Look for smart solutions, such as a water-saving showerhead.
What can you do?
‘Steer clear of palm oil and microplastic and microplastics in shampoo and toothpaste,’ says Porcelijn. Have shorter showers or, even better, cut your shower time down to two minutes (which many Capetonians already do to save water).
Did you know that the making of a car has a significant impact on the environment? To compensate for the worldwide emission of CO², a forest the size of Brazil should be planted each year. Unfortunately, the same applies to electronic cars. Furthermore, the black stripes cars leave on the asphalt contain microparticles there are not degradable. This means they remain present and eventually end up in the water. According to Porcelijn, tyre wear is a much bigger contribution to plastic soup than, say, microplastics in beauty products.
Do you even need a car?
- Look into sharing or renting a car, and always opt for lift shares and carpooling.
- By not using your car in a city, you can save a lot of CO² emissions. Braking and changing gears cause the most emission.
- Choose a little, light-weight, second-hand car – or even better: a small, second-hand electric car.
What can you do?
‘The best thing to do is to organise your life in such a way that you don’t need a car any more,’ says Porcelijn. ‘On average, cars stand still for 95% of the time, and 80% of car rides are shorter than five kilometres.’ Walk or cycle when you can, and make use of public transport.
The impact of aircraft on the environment is huge. The emission of fine particulate pollution from a Boeing 747 as it takes off is equivalent to that of a million trucks. Plus, the emission at a height of 10km is far more damaging than on the earth.
Tips for travelling
- Research cool holiday alternatives.
- If you choose a long flight, make it an exception and ensure it will be an unforgettable trip.
What can you do?
According to Porcelijn, if you say no to a holiday in Bali, for example, you could potentially plant a thousand trees. ‘This is what is necessary to absorb the emission of that one return flight. If you truly want to make a difference, start re-evaluating your holidays.’
What is it again?
Every single year eight-billion kilos of plastic end up in the oceans, and due to the currents, plastic soup arises. The plastic soup represents only one per cent of all the plastic in the ocean. The rest of it is ‘lost’.
On the land, in the air and in nature, an unprecedented amount of plastic remains present. Animals mistake it for food, and the microparticles can enter our food chain via water and soil. According to a 2018 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report, South Africans, on average, use between 30kg and 50kg of plastic per person per year.
The biggest causes of plastic pollution? Packaging and production of water bottles, as well as industry, construction and agricultural waste. Not to mention the microplastics in tyres and clothing fibres. An estimated two-million plastic bags are thrown away every minute globally. Up to 80% of ocean plastic pollution comes from land.
What can you do?
Never leave rubbish on the streets. Stop using single-use plastics, drive less and put a filter in your washing machine if you have a lot of synthetic clothing. In fact, the European Parliament voted for a ban on throw-away plastic by 2021. Plastic earbuds, straws, utensils and cups must by then be made of sustainable material.
Use reusable bags for all of your grocery shopping. According to Pick n Pay, the average lifespan of a reusable bag can equate to more than 700 disposable plastic bags!
In the past year, the Shoprite Group, which represents both Shoprite and Checkers, 700-million plastic bags made from 100% post-consumer recycled material, diverting 7 000 tons of plastic from the landfill. You can also buy a MyBaguse bag, which is made from 40% recycled nylon sourced from pre-consumer waste.
This month, as part of COSMO’s First Ever Green Issue, is about raising awareness, starting a dialogue and supporting each other in driving change. We want to hear your stories. You can turn the tide on plastic waste. You can be part of the movement, and you can make a difference. Join the COSMO Break-Up With Plastic Challenge and stand a chance to win one of 10 SodaStreams.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Cosmopolitan SA.