All the small things

Plastic washed up on a beach in Norway (Credit: Bo Eide via Flickr)

By Sam Saunders

With concerns over climate change and the environment becoming more important and politically charged than ever before, I think it is time for everyone to look at their own lives and consumption habits in order to reduce our impact on the planet. Now, I’m not going to say that everyone should immediately become vegetarian or vegan, because I think there needs to be a recognition that this change, much like our transition from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewable sources of energy, will take a significant amount of time. Although changing societal norms and our way of life will be a painful process, we’ll have to in order to safeguard the planet for future generations. Therefore, this article will focus on some small changes that you can make to your life to reduce your environmental impact, without becoming a full-on eco warrior overnight.

First of all, we’ll start with diet. I’ll be blunt, one of the most effective ways of reducing your environmental impact is to cut down on meat, in particular red meats. A 2017 study found that JBS, Cargill and Tyson, the top three meat firms, emitted more greenhouse gases in 2016 than the whole of France. In addition to this, meat production uses a huge amount of water, with beef the largest consumer at 15,415 litres per kg, whereas chicken used less than a third of that. This is still inferior to both vegetables (322 litres per kg) and fruit (962 litres per kg), however, nuts use 9,063 litres per kg, so don’t look to those for salvation. It’s difficult to pin down the exact percentage of greenhouse gas emissions that meat production is responsible for, due to differences in measuring it and the complications in drawing together figures from agriculture, transport and direct animal methane. However, a study by Friends of the Earth Europe from 2014 estimated the percentage to be between 6 and 32; clearly a significant part of global emissions. Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions from beef production were revealed to be higher than those of chicken meat & eggs, sheep, goats, buffalo milk & meat and pigmeat production combined, so it’s clear that avoiding beef in particular is a great way to reduce your footprint. Unfortunately, cow’s milk is also a huge emitter, so switching to a dairy free alternative would be a good step and as one kilo of cheese uses around 10 litres of milk, that’s another one to cut out. Your own health should also be a concern, as eating more than 70g of red and/or processed meat a day (a quarter-pounder is 78g on average) has been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer, so that’s worth bearing in mind.

As for me, I’ll be honest, the health benefits of eating fewer portions of red meat was what first prompted me to think about cutting down on my intake, to the extent where I was actually shocked at the amount of red meat my family eats when I was at home. I’m aiming to only eat two or three portions of fish or chicken a week as well, as I’ve found that substituting things like vegetarian pies or sausages into my diet, and vegetable stews, soups and pasta bakes are a great way of making a filling meal without eating meat. I must admit, I think that those Quorn steaks are pretty disgusting, and it’s going to take me quite a while before I would be ready to give up cow’s milk and cheese. The main problem with it all is that I’ve grown up eating and cooking with milk and cheese so it’s incredibly hard to give them up, not to mention the fact that the northern European diet is very dairy heavy. As I’ve said, it’ll be gradual.

Now, for some slightly less quantitative arguments about plastic. Plastic, as has often been mentioned, is one of the most versatile materials we have ever invented as a species, that’s why it is so widely used. However, it does have the disadvantage/advantage of being incredibly difficult to break down, which is good for packaging but awful if it finds its way into the natural ecosystem. My tip for avoiding unnecessary plastic waste is not to avoid plastic completely, as that would impractical and probably rather unhealthy if you’re eating raw fish and raw meat. Instead, take a little more time in the shop and check the label of a product to see if the packaging can be recycled or use the website for more specific information on what can and can’t be recycled in Cardiff. Another simple question to ask yourself if you really need a separate plastic bag for your one red pepper in Lidl? Wouldn’t it be simpler to bring along a plastic bag that you already have and reuse that? Or get a paper one? That’s a piece of plastic that doesn’t need to be used and won’t be choking an unfortunate sea creature.

Other simple ways of avoiding unnecessary waste are to use a reusable plastic or metal water bottle when out and about, as well as taking a reusable coffee cup to your favourite outlet to avoid the use of a paper cup. I have to give credit to the university here, because they’ve introduced a standard size in a lot of their cafes, as well as offering a free drink when you buy a Cardiff University branded cup and further discounts for continued use. Much like you can only buy beer in pints and spirits in 25ml or 50ml increments in bars, there should be a standard legal measurement that represents small, medium and large in all coffee shops, so that consumers can buy one keep cup that is usable in every chain, as that’s something that I’m not sure works as well as it could. Another good way of reusing containers is to head to Ripple Living on Albany Road, as you can use your existing receptacles to stock up on products like basil and coriander, often for a fraction of the price that you would pay for a brand-new container full of spices.

Finally, there is the debate over whether it is better for the environment to use a cotton-tote or plastic bag when you go shopping, which is actually far from simple. It’s commendable that plastic bag use has dropped among major UK retailers by 85% since 2015 (when the 5p charge was introduced in England) and fewer plastic bags have been found on European beaches, so it is clearly working. The issue with cotton-tote bags is that as cotton uses a lot of water when it’s being grown, a study in 2011 found that the production of a cotton-tote bag emits over 100 times more CO2 than that of a standard plastic bag. Therefore, my advice is simple; if you buy a plastic bag, make sure you don’t throw it away and ensure you reuse it, and if you buy a cotton-tote bag, just be aware that you’re going to have to use it a lot to make it a sustainable exercise.

Thanks for reading as always guys, I hope you’ve enjoyed this column, and that it makes you think a bit more critically about your own habits and how you could change them to show some love to our lil blue marble.

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