Is Personal Activism Futile in the Face of Big Waste?

The Urban Monk

Ever since corporations and the government got the idea to let citizens feel personally responsible for pollution, recycling has snowballed into an epic cultural movement.

The 1970s saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and America’s first “Earth Day.” When the EPA started promoting the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” slogan, the general public began to consider their waste in a way they never had before.

You see, upcycling and reuse of materials is not a new concept.

In fact, it’s been around for so long that it actually gave rise to the cheap consumerist society we live in now.

Before the Industrial Revolution made materials of all kinds so easy to make, sell, and distribute, there was no fast fashion industry. There was no pesticide or fertilizer industry.

The scrap-material industry, however, was incredibly successful.

Times of poverty and isolation fed the creativity and resourcefulness of Americans.

When you bought a new product, it had multiple uses automatically. Flour sacks were used as material for clothing. Rags could be made into paper. Beef bones were fertilizer. Milk bottles were collected and refilled every week.

By the ’70s, it almost seemed like the public had forgotten they could mend their own clothing instead of tossing garments and buying new ones. That they could use their kitchen scraps to keep their garden soil healthy. That they could reuse tumblers and thermoses instead of buying bottled water and other single-use products.

So when we picked up the mantle of recycling again, it wasn’t because we didn’t have enough materials — it was because we had many.

By 1990, more than 10,000 communities in America had recycling initiatives — all of which asked the people buying the single-use products to be responsible for them instead of asking the companies making the products themselves.

And anyone who’s been listening in the 21st century knows we’ve reached a tipping point.

Check out the image above. That’s America’s largest landfill, and it contains 4 million tons of trash that biodegrade.

(Although experts estimate that 80% of the trash buried in landfills is actually recyclable.)

Knowing that these places exist all throughout the world can be disheartening.

Especially when you remember that corporations are responsible for the vast majority of the pollution in the world.

What does that mean, though? That the answer is — do whatever you want, because the damage the big guys cause is more than we could ever correct as individuals?

NO!

The answer is to change your lifestyle, lead by example, and vote with your dollar.

That is what corporations will listen to.

And here are six ways everyone can immediately change their behavior and treat the world more gently.

  1. Hydrate without buying water bottles. There are so many fantastic options for staying hydrated and quenching your thirst. Everyone forgets their water bottle at home now and again — buying a single use water bottle isn’t the worst thing you can do. But if you do it, try and make that water bottle last through several refills.
  2. Save your kitchen scraps and compost. If you’ve never composted before, don’t panic. It’s surprisingly easy. And if you don’t want to personally compost, drop your kitchen scraps off at your local compost pile! Turn your trash into fertilizer. Reduce the demand for chemical fertilizers. Lessen methane emissions from landfills.
  3. Ditch your plastic wrap for beeswax wrap. You don’t have to use beeswax wraps — there are myriad other plastic alternatives, like dishwasher safe baggies, washable baggies, and more. But the point is, there is no reason to still be using plastic sandwich baggies to wrap your food.
  4. Reframe the way you look at food waste. The sell-by date on food is often just a suggestion made by the store selling the item. That date doesn’t actually indicate that the food is rotten. Most of the time, you can smell or taste whether or not the food has gone bad. And lots of times, you can bring it back to life! Sprinkle water on your stale bread and pop it in the oven. Give your lettuce an ice bath and it’ll crisp again.
  5. Choose biodegradable options for frequently replaced items. Did you know that 850 billion million toothbrushes end up in landfills every year? And they don’t break down naturally. Use bamboo toothbrushes instead! Don’t use single-use sheet masks — use potted clay masks. Buy a safety razor instead of a cheap disposable one. They last much longer.
  6. Buy essentials in bulk. You know you’re not going to stop eating pasta this year. Don’t buy single-serving plastic containers at the grocery store. Buy in bulk! Cut down on packaging waste. The same goes for laundry detergent, dish soap, paper towels, toilet paper, etc. Think two steps ahead whenever you’re making regular purchases.

We won’t stop climate change on our own. We won’t clean up all of the garbage in the world on our own. We won’t keep our produce and land fresh and natural on our own.

But we can do it one person at a time.

For more care-informed education on getting out our own way, head on over to the Urban Monk Academy — all courses designed and taught by me, and free for two weeks.

NY Times Best Selling Author, filmmaker, and founder of whole.tv.

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