Caroline Mair-Toby discusses how to get in touch with your inner environmentalist for the new year.
Still struggling with your resolutions for the New Year? For the new decade? Gyms are getting their annual haul of resolution-fueled subscriptions. Here in Trinidad, we are seeing less people at the doubles stands and more people running around Queen’s Park Savannah already, hoping to get in shape last minute for Carnival.
But how about… we focus beyond ourselves this year. Just a little. What do you want for this decade? For your community? For the Earth? How can we not only have cleaner, healthier bodies, but also a cleaner, greener environment? If one by one we make a change, collectively we can make a difference.
1) Save the trees
First and foremost, the most important thing we can do for the environment is to save the forests and trees that very literally keep us alive. We’re seeing the horrifying reality of climate change in the raging forest fires of Australia. In the Amazon, fires are also steadily felling the lungs of the world. Trees provide oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), improve air quality, conserve water, preserve soil, and support wildlife. On small islands such as in the Caribbean, the natural beauty of forests and trees are a huge part of the appeal for tourists, not only the sun, sea and sand.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people. After reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, conserving and replanting our tree population are some of the best ways to keep carbon in the ground and prevent climate change.
So how do we do that? Recycle paper, say no to paper, buy recycled paper goods, plant a tree, support local farmers who harvest tree crops, and don’t support industries that profit off of the destruction of forests. For example, here in the Caribbean, loosely regulated quarrying is a huge problem. When you fly over the Northern Range of Trinidad, you can see vivid scars in the hillside testifying to this. Quarrying has a significant impact on the environment, including damage to biodiversity and habitat destruction, noise pollution, air pollution, land degradation, land subsidence and landslides, and water pollution. Write to your government (see point #10) to let your voice be heard that you as a citizen want to see change.
2) Eat less meat
Hey, maybe this can fit into your resolution to eat well and be healthy! #Veganuary is definitely a trend, with wellness aficionados jumping on board the clean, green wagon to cleanse after holiday indulgence. Whether you call it vegan, vegetarian, plant-based, flexitarian, or what have you, try stepping away from the meat-every-day pattern and see how much lighter your body, your wallet and the planet might feel!
After fossil fuels, the meat and dairy industry in large countries like the US and Brazil contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore to climate change. Methane pollution causes one quarter of the global warming. (Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas (accounting for 81 percent of emissions), but methane is much more potent.) Livestock — including cows, pigs, sheep and other animals — are responsible for about 14% of greenhouse gas emissions. Cows are the primary offenders, and each animal releases 30 to 50 gallons a day on average. There are an estimated 1.3 to 1.5 billion cows on the planet. That’s a lot of methane.
Moreover, the razing of tropical forests for ranchlands has been a huge contributor to forest fires, as we’ve seen recently in the Amazon. This has a cascade of repercussions (see point #1), but the impact of wildlife and biodiversity is huge.
We like to imagine forests existing merrily outside of cities with birds chirping and animals pottering around, but most of land worldwide is utilized by suburban sprawl and farmland. The world is actually a huge farm, with animals trapped for slaughter or enslaved for utilitarian work purposes, while wildlife habitats are on the decline. Beyond the impact of meat on yourself and the environment, think of the impact on living, breathing, sentient animals. We have the image of farms as happy places from our childhood books, but large industrial farms (especially in the United States) are notorious for their inhumane treatment of animals. So think twice.
3) Turn it off!
It goes without saying, but turn off electrics when you’re not using them. Unplug computers, TVs and other electronics when you’re not using them. It’s so easy to say you’re coming back, but do you?
Wash clothes in cold or warm water (not hot). Avoid dryers if you can. Drying racks are always a better option, or outside like your grandmother or Tantie used to do. Sunshine is amazing for whites. But if you do need to use a dryer, consider using wool dryer balls to shrink drying time. Change to energy-efficient light bulbs.
Keep your home cool in the summer without an air conditioner. Use ceiling fans and standing fans. Take a fan in your handbag. Turn down your car windows if it’s not boiling and you’re in a safe area (because let’s be real – crime exists).
4) Go #ZeroWaste
Let’s take a hard pass when it comes to plastic this year. Each year, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean.
Plastics and microplastics infiltrate every place you can think of in the world. There are plastic bags at the bottom of the ocean, in the stomach of whales and birds, even 11 kilometres (7 miles) deep in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench. Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long and end up everywhere. They rain down on us, are in the air we breathe, are harmful to ocean and aquatic life and even accelerate the melting of the glaciers.
With such a huge problem, “What can lil’ ole me do,” you might ask?
Start slowly. Carry your reusable items with you. Instead of buying a plastic bottle of water, carry a reusable bottle with you. It doesn’t have to be expensive – you can find something in your kitchen or reuse one that you already bought. Then expand - reusable cutlery, reusable straws, travel coffee mugs, and cloth tote bags. Carry them in your purse so you have them at the ready.
And that goes for reusable shopping bags as well. Carry your cloth tote with you, keep it in your purse for groceries, keep them in your car, keep them in your kitchen - wherever will help you remember them.
And don’t limit it to your stomach and kitchens. Think of your bathroom – your plastic toothbrush can be replaced with a bamboo one, toothpaste tubes can be replaced with plastic-free toothpaste pellets, and the list goes on, use bar soap instead of body wash, bar shampoo instead of bottle shampoo, a wash cloth instead of a plastic net loofah, and so on.
Don’t think about recycling only – think about using less. Because once plastic enters the world, it is there forever – hundreds of years to degrade. Even when they degrade, they just turn into microplastics, and we know how that goes.
So much food is imported these days. But air travel has a huge carbon footprint, and often you don’t know where your food is coming from. But if you buy local, there is a lot less time that elapses between harvesting and reaching your plate. Food is fresher, and you can feel better that you haven’t contributed to the rising greenhouse gas emissions that’s threatening our current way of life. There’s also less packaging, less plastic, and it’s usually cheaper when you buy from local farmers.
Buying local also supports your local entrepreneurs. So instead of making a huge international conglomerate with dubious human rights and environmental records even wealthier, how about you support your local craftsman or farmer? You’ll be putting food on their table, helping pay their rent, or even sending their child to extra lessons or football or ballet classes. They may be able to hire someone, and this creates more jobs. That’s a huge difference you can make. Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats.
So find out where your local service and food businesses and farmers’ markets are. You can meet your farmers, craftsmen, and artisans face to face, find out how they produce their products. Do they use fertilizer, or are they organic? Do they use imported palm oil in those skin care products, or local honey and cocoa butter? These questions can inform your purchase and let you know if your dollar is going towards the destruction of the environment or the support of sustainable practices.
And it’s also fun! Make a day of it. Go after exercising or worship, take your family, your children, your friends, have a coffee made from local beans or munch on a homemade snack, sit outdoors in the fresh air, hear live music, meet your community and neighbours. Don’t forget to bring your reusable bags! Added bonus: if you go to a “pick your own” farm. Take your kids – they’ll have loads of fun, get some exercise and vitamin D, and they’ll learn a valuable lesson about eating healthily and where food comes from.
6) Grow your own
I can’t stress this enough. You’ll gain a beautiful understanding of how plants grow, of what small farmers go through getting food to our plates (thank you small farmers! Especially organic ones!), and you’ll feel closer to the earth and have more respect for nature. You’ll also have more respect for what a plant goes through in producing your food. My cousin has a small farm in her backyard, and expressed surprise at the time invested into growing one pineapple. Growing your own doesn’t just save on grocery bills, it’s a low-cost, healthy, family activity too. It’s also a cheaper way to have access to organic food without the high price tag that you get in the grocery (but you have to make sure you grow it organically, first).
Don’t have a garden? Try windowsill planters or pots if you have a balcony or patio. You can take it a step further and think about hydroponics if you’re adventurous - a form of gardening that uses no soil, but instead grows plants in a solution of water and nutrients.
If you have a little space, why don’t you think about aquaponics? It’s a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures supplies the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purify the water. There are some startup costs, but if you can swing it, you’ll never need to buy fish or vegetables for dinner. (Although, I know some wonderful people who can’t bear to part with the fish, and they’ve become pets!)
Ugh. Composting is gross right? There are worms and bugs and all sorts of yucky things involved, right? What if I told you that composting is one of the most important things you as an individual could do to contribute to saving the environment?
There are so many benefits to composting. It saves water by helping the soil hold moisture and reduces water runoff. It benefits the environment by recycling organic resources while conserving landfill space. It reduces the need for chemical fertilisers, and reduces water pollution. It helps replenish soil.
Soil? Why is that an issue, you might ask? Soil degradation is one of the foremost environmental concerns that we don’t even know about. We take it for granted that soil is there under our feet and it’ll always be there. But large scale, industrial farming depletes minerals in the soil, as does the ever-increasing deforestation (see point #1).
Well, what’s the point of composting? You can use it in your own garden (see point #6), but you can also help on a wider scale. Some countries like the United Kingdom have regional composting facilities available and organize pick-ups and drop-off facilities with biodegradable bags. If only everywhere had that! If your country doesn’t provide that, don’t despair. Talk to your local farmers (see point #5) to see if they would be interested in taking your composting.
8) Staycation it
Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old climate campaigner, famously made headlines when she elected to sail to a UN climate conference in New York in a zero-emissions yacht rather than fly. She wanted to highlight the impact of aviation on the environment, which contributes about 2% of the world's global carbon emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It predicts passenger numbers will double to 8.2 billion in 2037.
Despite the #wanderlust fever that’s been sweeping Instagram, sometimes it’s great to explore your own. Stay in your own town. The beauty of living in a small island is that we live where the rest of the world vacations. Support your local hotels, bars, explore a different nook or cranny of your island, take an afternoon to cycle around a neighbouring town, hop on a local ferry or coach to check out that place you always meant to go to, but keep putting off.
If you must travel, think about ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. The problem for small islands residents is that we are completely surrounded by water. If you need to get somewhere, how can you reduce your carbon impact? Is there a train or a ferry that you can take on one leg of your journey?
9) Exercise your right as a consumer
You have a voice as a consumer. One of the most powerful things you can do as a consumer is to choose. Being a green consumer means being someone who is aware of his or her obligation to protect the environment by purchasing products or services that are sustainable, have a less damaging impact on the environment, or are less detrimental to human health than the traditional product equivalent.
So what are green products? They can be energy efficient, durable and often have low maintenance requirements. They can be free of ozone-depleting chemicals, toxic compounds and don’t produce toxic by-products. They can be made of recycled materials or from renewable and sustainable sources. Often they are obtained from local manufacturers or resources. They can be biodegradable or easily reused either in part or as a whole.
Use your consumer power for good. Do your research. You know what the products are. You know who the polluters are. You know what the consequences are. You have the power to choose not to support them. And putting your dollar behind a product that is kinder to and more sustainable for the earth pushes the movement that much further along. And it sends a signal to big business that we mean business.
10) Lobby your government
You also have a voice as a citizen. Many people suffer from environmental damage because they don’t know their government should enable them to live in a healthy environment. Individuals should be educated and have access to information. They should be able to take part in decisions and to have access to justice in environmental matters.
Former lobbyist Dominique Heffes-Doon, who worked with the Trinidad and Tobago Cancer Association in 2009 to lobby the government successfully to ensure the passage of the Tobacco Control Act, says that lobbying is mainly rallying community. She shared with the Institute for Small Islands some tips on how to lobby effectively:
“Right now we’re so lucky because we have so many platforms from which we can directly reach our chose representative. We have social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are all public platforms from which we can hold our elected officials accountable.
“Writing letters is also effective, especially in the lead up to elections. Ask yourself – who are the key influencers? Identify who can make a genuine impact. I wrote (the former Prime Minister) Patrick Manning every single day for a month. Thirty letters. Every single day. Make sure your voice is heard and noticed.
“Never think you’re just one person. Even if you’re one voice, if you rally your community around the same topic, you can inundate who you want to reach. You can do tweets, you can do videos, you can do letters.
“That’s what lobbying is - it’s about volume and persistency and consistency of your message. Write your local government representative. Write your MP. Write the media. The power of the pen is powerful.”