Celebrating Ocean Week: Simple Steps to Reducing your Emissions

As the global youth climate movement sweeps the globe, it’s prime time for all of us to rethink our lives, and how we might alter them for the sake of the planet. You’ve already heard about carpooling, saving water, and reusable bags, but there are other aspects of our everyday lives that are often overlooked when talking about sustainability. This is a somewhat longer post that addresses several topics – I’ve provided a brief summary of everything at the beginning, but I do recommend you invest time into researching topics you care about, because sustainable living is often not as simple as we might hope.

Short Version

  1. Reduce before recycling: The value of recyclables today is often lower than the cost of collecting and transporting them, and the process comes with its own environmental footprint. The best way to lead a sustainable life is reducing the amount of stuff we buy, and using recycling as a last-resort only, rather than a fix-all solution.
  2. Recycle smart, not lots: Single-stream recycling was meant to make the process easier for people, but instead it has created a lot of confusion over what can and can’t be recycled.Over 25% of what people put in the blue bin does not belong there, and these mistakes are costing our recycling programs millions of dollars a year. Don’t assume you know it – research what’s recyclable in your area, and make sure to wash out your yogurt containers, peanut butter jars, etc. before recycling them.
  3. Don’t consume endangered wildlife: Sometimes things are sold to us under a different name than we’d expect. Sometimes, we just don’t pay attention to the labels. And sometimes we eat things we shouldn’t because it’s cool, or because we’ve been told they can fix all our problems. Whatever the case, endangered animals like sharks are finding their way into our foods and cosmetics, which is a threat to both the wildlife and to human health.
  4. Eat smart: Are you a locavore? Locavores are people who try to choose locally grown or locally produced food that is in season. Buying from the nearby farmers’ market always feel like the right thing to do, but keep in mind that food transportation is not the biggest source of emissions in the food production chain. What gets on your table is just as important as how it got there, and sometimes we need to think more about how food is grown as opposed to how far it’s travelled.  
  5. Green your closet: Landfills worldwide are overflowing with our discarded clothes. Our society has become addicted to low-cost, disposable fashion, which is harming small communities, producing microplastics, contaminating air and water supplies, and leaking chemicals into the environment. Instead of spending money often on cheap clothes, save up and invest into natural, biodegradable items, or shop for second-hand.
  6. Be a responsible pet owner: How you treat your pets, how you feed them, and how you clean up after them can have a sizable impact on the environment. Just as we should consider the environmental impacts of our own food, so should we strive to feed our pets in ways that help minimize their own global paw-print. There are lots of sustainable options for toys and cat litter as well. And if you have a taste for the exotic, make sure to do your research – many exotic animals are caught from the wild, including endangered populations.
  7. Travel off the beaten path: Over-tourism is a real problem that risks destroying many natural and historical sites. When booking your next trip, consider traveling off-season, or dig around for some smaller, lesser-known locations. And once at your destination, be respectful of your surroundings – don’t go stomping off-path and crushing some endangered flowers, or supporting cruel ecotourism practices.
  8. FIGHT for what you love: Now that you are thinking about sustainability in your life, help spread the message to others! Tell your friends and families, start a movement at your school, organize meetings with your community, and stay up-to-date on current developments. There are many ways to get involved, and once you do you will meet many great people who share your views, and who will help you stay optimistic.
  9. Use your voice and your vote: Pledging commitment to the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra is important, but we also need structural ways to implement these changes. We need to elect better political leaders, who are conscious of the climate crisis emerging and willing to do something about it. Write to your local MPs about issues that concern you, and make sure to VOTE, both at the polls as well as with your money.

Full Version

1. REDUCE before Recycling 📉

Let’s start off easy: there’s a reason why reduce is the first pillar of sustainability, and that’s because it’s the most important one. Sure the blue bin may be preferable to the trash can, but recycling still has a waste footprint, and should really be thought of as a last-resort rather than a fix-all solution.

Recycling requires energy and resources, including the maintenance of collection sites, transportation of recyclables, and the recycling manufacturing process itself, which, by the way, is not as perfect as we might hope. The best-case scenario for a product is to go through primary reprocessing: the process of breaking down a re-creating the same product, such as a glass bottle turning back into a glass bottle. Sadly, most recyclables (especially plastics) are sensitive to heat breakdown, degrading more and more each time they’re processed. Because of this, plastics are typically used for secondary reprocessing, which produces items that are not themselves recyclable, such as bumper stickers, textiles, etc. So although secondary reprocessing diverts material from landfill, this diversion is only temporary. Finally there’s tertiary processing, in which plastics are broken down into basic chemicals that can be reassembled into virgin-grade materials or used as fuel. This reduces the extensive sorting and cleaning required by primary and secondary methods, but since tertiary reprocessing is functionally similar to chemical manufacturing, the environmental impacts, including emissions and energy use, are equally high.

It is also worth noting that recycling only works when there’s someone willing to buy the recycled materials. Until recently, the world’s primary recycling processor has been China, which handled nearly half of all recycled materials for the past quarter century. But in 2018, the country all but shut down the market due to high levels of contamination in US and European recyclables. This created a major global stall on recycling, as decades of reliance on China had stifled the development of domestic markets and infrastructure. Today the value of recyclables is often lower than the cost of collecting and transporting them, and this issue disproportionately affects small rural towns. Some communities have been forced to stop accepting plastics altogether, while others are now burning the bulk of their recyclables at waste-to-energy plants, which emit harmful air pollutants. 

Don’t get me wrong, recycling is an important and worthwhile endeavor. But recycling does not mean zero waste; a recycled bottle will not embark on some celestial journey, reincarnated a thousand times. At some point, that bottle will end up in a landfill, or the ocean. So we need to think more about how and what we recycle. A better goal is simply to buy less stuff: less clothes, less food, less electronics, and less packaging! To put it in the words of the late Rob Stewart: we need to “dispose of our disposable society.” After all, it’s the experiences and the people in our lives that bring the most happiness, not the stuff. Never the stuff.

2. Recycle Smart, Not Lots ♻️

That said, when it does come to recycling it’s not as simple as tossing everything into the blue box of magic. Sometimes the road to Hell is paved with best intentions, and in the case of recycling our mistakes are costing our governments millions of dollars each year.

Are lids from coffee cups recyclable or not? Is bubble wrap? What do you do when you’re not sure? Many of us today use a single-stream recycling process, in which everything gets tossed into one bin, sparing us the trouble of having to sort out plastics from paper, glass etc. But this system has created a headache for processors, and resulted in overall decrease in the quality of recyclables. Without the need to think about it, people are more likely to recycle actual waste – a phenomenon described by waste management experts as “aspirational recycling”; basically when people aren’t sure, they opt to recycle because it feels like the right thing to do. Unfortunately it is not! Things like blood bags, needles, dead animals and dirty diapers… over 25% of what ends up in our recycling bins is not actually recyclable! And these things can end up contaminating whole batches of recyclable materials, making them unusable. It is precisely because of contamination that China has stopped buying our recycling! Even a few spoonfuls of peanut butter left in a jar can contaminate a tone of paper, making it destined for the dump.

So, what can you do about all this? The solution is simple: WASH OUT YOUR RECYCLABLES! It only takes a few extra minutes, but can make a load of difference! Next, educate yourself on what’s recyclable in your area. It doesn’t help that recycling rules vary across cities, so don’t assume you know it – do the research! Print this information out and put it on your fridge to reference each time you go to recycle something. And at the end of the day, the best thing to do (though it feels counter-intuitive) is to not recycle, unless you are absolutely sure.

PS: if you live in Halifax like I do, you can find the full list of recyclable materials here.

3. Eating Endangered Wildlife: A Case Study of Sharks 🦈

Endangered animals often end up on our tables – everything from green sea turtles to African forest elephants and great white sharks. There are many reasons for this: cultural convention, traditional medicine, and economic need are the most common, but worse of all is pure ignorance. Here I will examine the specific example of shark meat consumption, but many of the same principles will apply to bushmeat, whales, and other animal delicacies you might encounter during your travels.

Reasons people might consume sharks:
Culture: Many of you will have heard about shark fin soup – a traditional and very expensive Chinese and Vietnamese luxury item. The fins are actually tasteless, only serving to provide texture, while the soup’s taste comes from other ingredients like veggies and spices. Increased demand for shark fins has driven many populations to the brink of extinction over the past several decades. Shark fishing is also one of the most cruel fishing practices; since only the fins are used, sharks are brought on board live, their fins removed, and the animals tossed back into the water to die of suffocation and/or blood loss. The good news is that shark fin soup consumption in China has dropped by over 70% in the last decade. However, the soup is still being served at some restaurants all over the world (even the US!), and the importation of fins is legal in many countries that have banned the practice of finning itself. And it’s not just the fins being consumed. In some countries, particularly along the Eastern coast of Africa and in Iceland and Greenland, shark is a staple food, eaten out of necessity in the face of strained resources. Shark meat also shows up on menus of high-end, gourmet restaurants across the world, and even beachside cafes and grills in popular tourist destinations.

Culture: Many of you will have heard about shark fin soup – a traditional and very expensive Chinese and Vietnamese luxury item. The fins are actually tasteless, only serving to provide texture, while the soup’s taste comes from other ingredients like veggies and spices. Increased demand for shark fins has driven many populations to the brink of extinction over the past several decades. Shark fishing is also one of the most cruel fishing practices; since only the fins are used, sharks are brought on board live, their fins removed, and the animals tossed back into the water to die of suffocation and/or blood loss. The good news is that shark fin soup consumption in China has dropped by over 70% in the last decade. However, the soup is still being served at some restaurants all over the world (even the US!), and the importation of fins is legal in many countries that have banned the practice of finning itself. And it’s not just the fins being consumed. In some countries, particularly along the Eastern coast of Africa and in Iceland and Greenland, shark is a staple food, eaten out of necessity in the face of strained resources. Shark meat also shows up on menus of high-end, gourmet restaurants across the world, and even beachside cafes and grills in popular tourist destinations.

Medicine: There is also a widespread misconception that sharks can somehow help us cure cancer. This myth rests on the idea that sharks don’t get cancer (which they absolutely do!) because their cartilage prevented the growth of new blood vessels into tissues – a key characteristics of malignant tumors. The truth is that tumors have been extensively documented in sharks, even in their cartilage, but that hasn’t stopped eager fishermen from slaughtering millions of sharks in order to sell their pulverized cartillage to desperate cancer patients. In fact, even the idea that sharks get cancer less often than other species is hard to scientifically support. To paraphrase Dr. Andrew Vickers, “shark cartilage as a cancer cure isn’t untested or unproven, it’s disproven”. Still, the consumption of powdered sharks as medicine continues to be practiced in some parts of the world.

Cosmetics: One of the cosmetic industry’s favorite ingredients is Squalene: an oil compound found in shark livers, which is highly regarded for its moisturizing and properties and can be found in sunscreen, lipstick, foundation, lotion, and many other products. The truth is that there are many other sources for this product, but because plant-based squalene is about 30 percent more expensive to produce, millions of rare, deep-sea sharks are still being fished worldwide for their livers. Fishermen target primarily deep-sea sharks such as gulpe, basking, and tope sharks because they have extra oily livers that help them stay buoyant despite the crushing pressures. Unfortunately, these are also amongst the most vulnerable species, having slow growth rates and few reproductive events, which makes them more susceptible to overexploitation.

Misnomers: Shark meat is relatively easy to find in stores and restaurants worldwide, but often under a different name. For instance, in Brazil – one of the largest worldwide importers of shark meat – sharks are typically sold under the catch-all name “cação” (dogfish), which makes it complicated for consumers to make informed decisions. The problem is also common in Canada and the US, where sharks might be sold under the guise of flake, rock salmon, or sea ham (complete list here). Shark products have even been found in dog food, fish flour, and fertilizers. So how does this happen? “Seafood fraud, which describes any activity that misrepresents the products being purchased, is a massive issue, but most Canadians don’t even realize they’re being cheated,” says Julia Levin, Seafood Fraud Campaigner at Oceana Canada. In a 2018 report, 44% of tested seafood samples collected from retailers and restaurants across Canada were revealed to have been mislabeled. Seafood is particularly susceptible to fraud due to a long and complicated global supply chain, which can be difficult for customers to trace back. And while there is some skepticism about the extent of fraud described in this and other similar studies, if there’s any doubt about where your seafood comes from, you are probably best avoiding it. 

And why you absolutely shouldn’t:
Ecological threats: The global demand for shark fins, squaline, and shark meat products has driven many populations to near extinction over the last few decades. In addition to targeted fisheries, it is estimated that tens of millions of sharks are caught as bycatch each year. As top predators, sharks help to manage healthy ocean ecosystems by balancing prey populations, contributing to carbon cycling, and promoting ecotourism. In many part of the world, the decline of sharks has already started to impact local communities, leading to the decline in coral reefs and seagrass beds, and the loss of commercial fisheries. Protecting sharks and allowing their populations to recover is essential to restoring the health of our oceans.

Human health: If you don’t care about the well-being of sharks, at least consider your own. Shark meat has been shown to carry high levels of toxic metals such as mercury, as well as the marine toxin ciguatoxin that is produced by certain types of algae. These toxic substances get consumed by fish, and can then become concentrated at higher levels of the food chain. As top predators, sharks become loaded with these compounds, making them unsafe for human consumption (note that neither mercury not ciguatoxin are destroyed by heat, so contaminated flesh remains toxic even after cooking). 

Bottom line: Shark meat has been on the menu for centuries, but a lot of the health claims have since been disproven by science, and the luxury is simply not worth the health risks. The worst part is that many people are simply unaware of when they might be consuming wildlife, or of the damaging impacts that might have. So while I am an avid advocate for immersing oneself into the local culture when travelling, I encourage you to be vigilante and avoid culinary relishes that contain endangered wildlife. And don’t think you’re off the hook just because you don’t travel! We have so many options available to us today that it’s easy for companies to sneak a bit of shark into our diets or cosmetics without us noticing. That’s why it’s so important to be an educated consumer – do your research, and to vote with your dollars by purchasing from companies you know to be shark-free. 

Sharks are ancient, incredibly fascinating animals, and we are rightfully fascinated with them! Sharks can teach us a lot about the stability of ecosystems, mechanisms of DNA repair, and the evolution of adaptive immunity, and for that they are worth studying, even if they aren’t going to cure cancer or become a part of our diet.

4. Local Food = Better Food? 🍎

Humans have been moving food around the world for thousands of years. Trade was a fundamental aspect of ancient civilizations as much as it is today, with long-distance trade playing a major role in the cultural, religious, and artistic exchanges that took place between the major centers of civilization in Europe and Asia during Antiquity.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, where modern transportation and urbanization have changed the agricultural trade, and, with it, the way we eat. This new lifestyle, defined by innovative methods of transporting and storing food, has anchored us to the supermarket. I doubt if many of us ever consider the journey our food has taken to get from where it was grown and processed to our dinner tables. We don’t need to worry about that. The whole process of obtaining food has become so simple and streamlined that we have forgotten the fact that food takes time to grow and culture. If I want fresh strawberries in the middle of winter, I can simply head to my local grocer and buy some that were grown in California, Florida or Mexico. I don’t need to wait until June, when strawberries can be grown here. But if you do stop to think about it, how much of our carbon emissions come from transporting food across international borders? The more I think about it, the more I have to ask myself: do I really need a strawberry in winter?

Clearly I’m not the only one asking this question. Over the past few years, the demand for locally sourced food has nearly doubled across the US and Canada, and farmers’ markets are becoming increasingly popular. But even if you consider yourself a “locavore” who buys fresh veggies and bred from your nearest farmers’ market every Sunday, how much have you actually changed your diet? The truth is that most of the staple foods we like to enjoy can’t be 100% domestically produced; think about the coffee you enjoy every morning, the sugar that goes into it, the spices you have in your cupboards, or the cocoa in that healthy morning-snack granola bar. It’s difficult to imagine our lives without these familiar items, and besides, what would we do in winter when there are no local veggies and fruits to be found? And therein lies the biggest question for me: is it actually practical to eat local?

According to a study by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, “the contribution of food transportation relative to the total greenhouse gas emissions of a given food product represents a small percentage of the carbon footprint for many foods”. In other words, transportation is by far not the most carbon-heavy step in the food production chain. So while supporting a local food system and minimizing transport are generally useful principles, this is not likely to change the overall ecological impact of your food.

That said, not all miles traveled are equal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Modes of transportation can have a much stronger influence on emissions than transportation distance; for example, shipping generally comes with lower emission compared to road or air transport, but ships also travel longer distances than trucks, which complicates the equation. In a surprising plot-twist, the report demonstrated that, in certain cases, the emissions from consumers driving long distances to purchase a few items were greater than all other transport, storage and processing energy used combined! Overall, the report highlights food production and processing as the biggest sources of emission: factors like use of fertilizers, crop yields, water usage, soil conditions, refrigeration facilities, and general management policies. Which means that a) calculating the environmental footprint of food is a lot more complicated than the distance from your home, and b) local is not always the best option. For example, consider this: a carrot grown in a greenhouse in B.C. requires fossil fuel energy to grow, while a similar carrot from the fields of Mexico/Chile requires much less energy.

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, making the most responsible food choices isn’t always as simple as going organic or buying from the farm. Identifying a minimally impactful consumption strategy will require some research, a flexible approach based on the specific food in question, as well as seasonal variability. There’s a reason that certain places are known for particular crops: factors like precipitation, weather and seasonality combine to make a hospitable environment for a specific plant, so better food practices requires concentrating production of staple crops in areas where these crops grow best. This is a job for the agriculture industry, but we have a part to play too. Changes in diets to favor less energy-intensive crops is a crucial step for consumers to make, as well as making educated choices on when not to buy imported foods, will help reduce our overall emissions. As with all things, do your research! Buying local might feel like the good thing to do – and often times it is – but in some cases, you might be better off getting that Mexican strawberry after all 😉 The choices you make will be influenced by a number of factors, so you will need to do some digging yourself to figure out the best options in your local area. For now, here is a short list of guidelines to help get you started:

  1. If you are really concerned about the impact of your food, focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local. More greenhouse gas emissions are released from producing meat than any other form of food (Weber and Matthews, 2008). The environmentally-conscious diet prioritizes vegetables, beans and nuts while reducing red meat – a healthier choice for both the planet and our own health. Note that I am not suggesting we should all go vegetarian! Meat is an important food, just not in the amounts most Canadians / Americans consume. Eat meat once a week, and opt for humanely-raised, sustainable cattle when you do. 🐄
  2. Reduce your food waste: a whopping 58 per cent of all food produced in Canada — 35.5 million tonnes — is lost or wasted, according to a report by Second Harvest. That’s $49.46 billion worth of food, which could have been used to feed Canadians for five months. And the waste comes with environmental impacts, both from the manufacturing process, as well as food decomposition in landfills. We need to start changing our wasteful habits – don’t buy more than you can eat, don’t be biased against “ugly produce” (foods with minor blemishes that do not actually affect freshness or quality, such as dents or wonky shapes), and consider sharing any food you think you won’t be able to eat with others.
  3. Support eco-labels and other sustainable certifications. A lot of food’s carbon emissions stem from farming practices, so supporting sustainable agriculture is an important step in reducing overall emissions. While it’s true that “greenwashing”, or misusing eco-lables without going through the qualification process, is found all throughout restaurants and grocery stores, knowing where your food comes from is important for maintaining a sustainable diet. There are hundreds of labels out there, and not all have the same definition of sustainability. As with everything, we must do our research, and watch out for misleading language like “dedicated Ocean Wise partner”, which is not the same as having the official Marine Stewardship Council certification. Logos to look out for next time you’re shopping include Fairtrade (protects farmers and workers in developing countries), Freedom Food (animal welfare), MSC and ASC (seafood), and RSPO (palm oil). At the end of the day it comes down to traceability – don’t be afraid to ask your retailers directly about their commitments to sustainability, and when there’s uncertain about the authenticity or sustainability of your seafood, it may be best to opt out of getting all-together.
  4. Don’t be quick to hate GMOs! Gene-modified foods have gotten a bad rep lately, and are currently banned from most “wholistic” lifestyles and organic farming. However, it’s worth remembering that genetic modification is a tool that is not inherently good or bad. In fact, GMOs can greatly benefits farmers as well as human health. Consider Golden Rice – a strain of rice which contains genes that allows it to make β-Carotene, which could be used to prevent Vitamin-A deficiency in the developing countries. And while it’s true that a lot of research still needs to be done, we should not rush to write off GMOs, especially as changing climate and a growing global population continue to strain our food production.
  5. Prioritize low-impact foods. Seventy-five percent of our global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species; just three (rice, maize, wheat) make up nearly 60 percent of plant-based calories in our entire diet! This excludes many potentially valuable sources of nutrition, and often goes hand-in-hand with harmful farming practices such as monoculturing. Diversified diets help improve human health, benefit the environment through better production systems, and encourage more sustainable use of resources. To learn more about low-impact foods, check out this list of 50 healthy and sustainable foods compiled by the WWF and Knorr, in partnership with Dr. Adam Drewnowski, Director of The Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.  
5. Green Your Closet 👕

We talk a lot about chemicals and plastic pollution, but landfills are also overflowing with our discarded clothes. Our society has become addicted to low-cost, disposable fashion, and while there is an increased awareness of poor labour conditions in some of these factories, we’re still not talking seriously about how the industry is harming our planet. In fact, the fashion industry is one of the major polluters in the world, damaging to water, air, and soil quality, and representing roughly 10% of the global carbon footprint. For example, polyester – one of the most popular fibers used in fashion today – is made from a chemical reaction of coal, petroleum, air and water, two of which are fossil fuels. Polyester is also non-biodegradable, meaning that it will persist in the environment long after being discarded. It is now estimated that synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans, as washing releases small plastic fibers that leak into the environment.

So is the solution as simple as avoiding synthetic clothes? Not so fast. Natural fibers have also been contributing to pollution. The cultivation of cotton, for instance, requires large amounts of pesticides, which leads to the pollution of surface and groundwater. Pesticide leakage can lead to water eutrophication – a phenomenon in which excessive runoff of nitrates and phosphates causes algal blooms in surrounding systems, leading to a depletion of oxygen. Cotton is also a very thirsty plant. In many regions where cotton is grown, rainfall is insufficient for irrigation, so the deficit is made up by water from nearby rivers and wells. The water withdrawals can be so massive that they diminish river flows and deplete groundwater, affecting the livelihoods of locals, wildlife habitats, and fish populations. Besides, whether natural or not, fibers still have to be spun, knitted or woven, dyed, finished, sewn and transported – all of which comes with its own environmental impacts.

To be fair, many brands are starting to realize the issues and make changes towards a more sustainable fashion industry, but getting ahead of the waste problem involves first and foremost changing consumer behaviour. This can be as simple as:

  1. Shop LESS 📉
  2. Shop for brands with traceable supply chains 👗
  3. Reuse your clothes 🍃
  4. Swap with friends 👭
  5. Shop for biodegradable materials 🌿
  6. Demand sustainability from your favorite supply chains 👜

A number of online platforms are available that showcase high-quality, sustainable brands, such as Kotn and Thread Harvest. Much like organic food, green clothing can often be more expensive, so it’s understandable that this might not always be an option. However, I you keep the Slow Fashion principle in mind, you can approach shopping more as an investment, saving up for your next buy and replacing clothes less frequently. Buying good quality clothes and wearing them for longer will ultimately cost you the same as constantly replacing cheaper clothes. So buy less, chose well, and make it last!

Recycled content is often best of all, as it reduces the pressure on virgin resources and tackles the growing problem of waste management. For example, Patagonia was the first outdoor clothing brand to make polyester fleece out of plastic bottles, as well as t-shirts made of a blend of recycled cotton and recycled polyester. I know I’ve said this before, but once again, the best thing you can do is to do your research before you buy anything!

6. Being a Responsible Pet Owner 🐹

Say you’re someone who’s committed to being environmentally conscious: you eat a mostly a plant-based diet, you say no to plastic bags, you bike to work, and you get your clothes from recycled materials. Changing our own life-styles is one thing, but for those of us with pets it can be really hard not to spoil our little furry/scaly/feathery babies with treats and toy. How often do you think about the environmental impact of doggy treats, or the source of fish in your aquarium? If pets are a part of your life, perhaps it’s time you did.

As a person who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about the environment, I cringe at the thought of the pet trade and its substantial environmental pawprint. So if you are a pet parent who also harbors some eco-guilt, what can you do?

First, take the time and put as much thought into their food as you do your own. A 2017 study found that dogs and cats in the US eat about 25% of the country’s total calories derived from meat, resulting in a release of up to 64 million tons of greenhouse gases. The authors recommended an industry-wide efforts to reduce overfeeding and waste, and find alternative sources of protein to help reduce these impacts. Thankfully, finding green alternatives for pet food is not too hard! Companies like Yora are churning out pet foods that contain ground up crickets and worms instead of meat or fish. Another alternative is to look for foods made using by-products of the human food industry, like animal bone or organ meat. You can even get creative and make pet food and treats yourself (just make sure to follow veterinary nutrition guides for your pet).

Waste disposal is another big one. Common composting advice warns against composting dog and cat feces, and there’s a good reason for that: cats and dogs, being omnivores, produce waste that harbors harmful bacteria, which would make us sick if it came in contact with food. If you are composting with the intention of using that anywhere near edible crops, DO NOT compost dog and cat waste. However, if you are planning on using your compost on your lawn, or to fertilize your tulip garden, you might consider throwing your pet’s feces in there. Hot composting is the best option here, as it will help kill off as many harmful microorganisms as possible. Small herbivorous animals like lizards and birds are more eco-friendly with their poop, and aquarium water makes for a great plant fertilizer! But when it comes to waste disposal, always remember that human health comes first and foremost! If you are not sure, the best thing to do is to just throw your pet’s waste in the garbage. (By the way, choosing a biodegradable poop bag for Fido’s business may feel like the green choice, but here’s the hitch: in most landfills, conditions prevent organic material from decomposing. For biodegradable poop bags to work effectively, they need to be disposed of correctly, such as at an industrial composting facility. Otherwise, which bag you use will hardly make a difference).

Play time is really important for our pets, so let’s make sure we keep toys eco-friendly as well! Plenty of companies offer toys, beds and other supplies that are made of reclaimed or sustainable products, so make the effort to invest in those, and avoid anything that contains plastic or chemical dyes. To help pay it forward, donate all your gently used pet toys to an animal shelter or to other pet owners.

Finally, be careful with what kind of pet you get. As a marine biologist and overall fish nerd I have always kept an aquarium, but not all fish make for good pets. Finding Nemo is a classic example of pet ownership gone wrong. The movie’s release in 2003 was, ironically, followed by a 30 to 40% overnight increase in demand for pet clownfish (Nemo) and blue tangs (Dory). Unfortunately, though clownfish can actually be easily bred in captivity, a good number of fish are still taken from wild populations, putting an added strain on reefs already fighting the pressures of global warming. The problem is even worse for fish like blue tangs, which CANNOT be successfully bred in captivity. So before you buy an exotic pet (or any pet really), make sure to do your research. Exotic animals can be really hard to keep, and every year countless snakes, bunnies, and tropical fish end up being released into the local environment by people who could not afford to keep them, which can lead to a harsh death for these animals, or affect local ecosystems if they establish and take over as invasive species.

We can protect our environment by enjoying marine life on our screens rather than in a fish tank, and by supporting sustainably sourced seafood. Fish are happier in the sea! So unless you know you are prepared for it, it’s best to let Dory go 🐠

7. Responsible Tourism 🗺

If you know anything about me, you know that I love travelling! Not only that, but I am very lucky to get to do some of it for work, whether it’s going in the field to collect samples, travelling to conferences, etc.  But as much as we like to go away on vacations, it’s important to take our values with us wherever we go.

“Although not everything depends on tourism, tourism depends on almost everything.”

Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries and a major source of income for many countries. Being a people-oriented industry, tourism also provides many jobs which have helped revitalize local economies. Ecotourism – which promotes a closer connection to nature and animals – can be instrumental to the conservation of endangered species. For example, coastal communities that used to practice whale hunting now earn their income from running whale-watching tours, which is better for both the whales and the public. But like everything, ecotourism has its dark sides, and if not done properly, our growing appreciation for wildlife can end up doing more harm than good.

Sustainable tourism is a way of traveling and exploring a destination while respecting its culture, environment, and people. Common sense says that this in itself is the definition of travel. Unfortunately, most people do not travel this way. Now, more than ever, human beings are exploring the world around them. Billions of people are travelling every year, which is putting a lot of strain on popular tourism destinations. Of course, defining how many tourists is “too many” is a subjective term, but in general, if rent prices push out local tenants to make way for holiday rentals, boardwalks become jammed with tour vehicles, landmarks are obscured with crowds of people, and wildlife is scared out of their natural habitats, then we are dealing with an overtourism crisis.

As you can guess, this mass movement of people can cause a lot of damage both to natural as well as man-made environments – historical sites are destroyed, beaches are privatized for hotels and businesses, and locals are all but pushed out of their own homes. But the issues are not just in cities – from the plains of East Africa to the glaciers of Alaska, wildlife tourism is becoming increasingly popular. We all love seeing wildlife – it can be a thrilling and educational experience. But when wildlife tours lose sight of the wild part of wildlife, the experience can become horrific for the animals involved. Many animals suffer in the tourism industry worldwide – baby sloths taken from their mothers and passed around in crowds as if they are a stuffed toy, elephants taught to perform tricks, I could go on but I think you get the picture. Even activities such as feeding, which may appear beneficial at first glance, can alter the animals’ behaviour and ultimately lead to more harm. Feeding sharks, for example, can encourage them to come closer to shore, with potentially disastrous consequences for swimmers and surfers, and for the sharks as well, leading to entrapment in man-made structures, bycatch in coastal fisheries, and even sanctioned culling events as the fear of these predators grows.

When it comes to ecotourism, always remember that wildlife is wild – so feeding, touching, and any altering of natural behaviour should never take place. Keep this in mind when searching for local tour guiding companies. Two other things to think about are the place and the time. Barcelona gets flooded by tourists every year, but Spain is a surprisingly large country, and many of its more remote cities want, and need, more tourists. If you are going to pick a popular destination, you can always chose to visit outside of peak season. This is more pleasant for you, less stressful for residents, and may even save you money. And whenever you travel, think about your individual actions: don’t litter, try and ensure as much of your cash stays as local as possible, pay national park entrance fees to ensure your visit supports conservation, and follow local guidelines (like the signs telling you to stay off flower fields)! Remember that you are a gust – respect your hosts, if you ever want to be welcomed there again.

8. Fight for What You Love 💚

Now that you are thinking about sustainability in your life, help spread the message to others! Tell your friends and families, start a movement at your school, organize meetings with your community, participate in citizen science – there are so many ways to get involved!

In this post I have highlighted some of the everyday aspects of sustainability that, in my opinion, often get ignored, but this list is by no means complete. Our natural world faces numerous challenges, so there are many solutions when it comes to improving sustainability. Not all options are viable for everyone. This is why the most important thing, by far, is to continue to educate yourself. The world is constantly changing, and new challenges as well as new solutions are constantly springing up – take the time to stay up-to-date on the topics you care about, and try to get a broader perspective on the topic. Science is just one aspect of it – go and talk to your local communities, to indigenous people, to policy makers – and get their opinions as well. Seeing all sides of a problem helps us collaborate to find solutions together.

9. Use Your Voice and Your Vote 🗳

Pledging commitment to the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra is important, but given that people can just opt out of making these choices, we also need a structural ways to implement changes. This requires new laws and legislations to keep both companies and individuals accountable. We need to elect better political leaders, that are conscious of the climate crisis emerging and willing to do something about it. First world countries in particular are the primary responsible party for increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, so the burden to implementing changes, politically and individually, lies with us and with our leaders. We need leadership that supports sane energy policies. And this means we need to voice our concerns.

So vote!! Get to know your political candidates, and don’t be afraid to reach out. Tell them about bills you wish to see passed, or ones you don’t agree with. These people were put in their positions to represent us – the people – so let them do their job by telling them how you wish to be represented. You have the power to voice your opinion, don’t let other people decide this for you!

Casting a meaningful vote means doing your research. It means discovering what’s important to you, making educated decisions about your stances, having discussions, and perhaps even opening up to other perspectives. Besides helping shape our country, voting makes you a more educated and engaged person that is connected to their community and the world. No candidate will ever be perfect, so you will have to learn to compromise, but at the end of the day the worst thing you can do is to remain passive. In today’s society we might have forgotten this, but the right to vote (especially for women) wasn’t a given – we had to fight for it! Voting is a luxury, and our responsibility as citizens. Voting isn’t just about supporting the candidates or issues specific to an election, it’s about supporting our democracy. And beyond voting, contacting your Member of Parliament (MP) is the most direct way to be heard (PS: all of their emails can be found on official Government websites).

Leading sustainable lives can be hard, I get that! Remember that nobody is perfect, but a big group of people that start to do little changes will eventually have a really big impact. Don’t feel that what you do is not important, because that is simply not true! It just takes patience and dedication, so finding like-minded people to motivate you can be really helpful! Stay Green Love your home. Take care of your Future. 🍃


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Marine biologist, nature enthusiast, and artist on a mission to promote ocean education and conservation 🌊

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