A Guide for Earth Day Environmental Activism

Young child holds a handful of dirt with a little sprout of a flower or plant emerging from the soil

Our consumerist society is centered around the promise that, if we work harder, we can purchase fulfillment. But within that empty promise is a lot of waste created by our desire for material goods and its making Mother Earth sick.

Unfortunately, much of that consumerism centers around a seemingly endless dependence on oil, and the more passively we consume plastic products, the more of a demand we create for it.

There is good news though — oil discovery is becoming incredibly expensive as the industry has to look to more desolate and remote areas to drill; areas that are often unpopular in the public eye, creating more hurdles for oil giants to deal with. Companies including Shell have canceled Arctic drilling projects because of the risk and unpopularity from increased public awareness.

At the same time, renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly practical and affordable. Some countries are even planning to end all oil and gas production within the next few decades. And as we spread awareness and stay involved in the transition away from oil, there are other steps we can take in our lives and some pretty inspirational people leading the charge whom we can take note from.

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A Simpler Way

  1. Be the Change You Want to See in The World

Though it may sound cliché, the only way to bring about change is to be the catalyst yourself. Rob Greenfield is a radical example of someone who has devoted his life to being the change, and though that lifestyle has been devoted to extreme environmental activism, his learnings can be implemented on smaller scales to still make an impact.

One of Greenfield’s projects involved him literally wearing the average amount of trash an American produces every day for an entire month. Greenfield accrued between four to five pounds of trash a day – up to 135 pounds in a month – and wore it on his body everywhere he went.

Greenfield has radically adjusted his life to become the poster child of sustainability, but even if we adopted a fraction of his waste reduction practices, the impact over a lifetime would be massive. In fact, one of his realizations toward the end of his project was that a single human creates a small mountain of garbage over the course of a lifetime. Now, Greenfield, as well as many other families across the world have adopted zero-waste standards, limiting their trash to a small Ziploc bag full every month or two.

So, what are the best starting points? Greenfield has expanded the three R’s to five R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse, and Repair. Refusing unnecessary plastics, such as straws, bags, and water bottles can have a huge impact over time. And repairing things, rather than buying new ones, saves money and the environment.

Removing chemicals from your life and switching to organic cleaners is not only good for the planet but cost-effective and better for your health. One method that zero wasters adopt is to buy castile soap in bulk; it can be used to clean your body and your home.

Shopping in bulk and storing food in reusable containers is another simple and cost-effective method of eliminating waste. And once you start to implement little tricks like this, you’ll find yourself incorporating simplicity in more aspects of your life. A minimalist lifestyle is the fastest route to less waste.

  1. Living Off the Grid

Sometimes living off the grid is easier said than done. The initial investment in the technology most of us need to live can be pricey, even if it pays for itself in the long run. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

For those willing to live a lifestyle that may take a little more work or maybe a little secluded, getting off the grid is easier than one might imagine. Typically, this involves living in more rural areas but can be done in a town or city with enough resolution.

Today the cost of solar is slowly decreasing as demand rises and government subsidies encourage it. Though the price fluctuates state to state, the average cost of a household solar system ranges from $10,000 to $15,000. Typically, the cost is calculated per kilowatt and often ranges from $2 to $4 per kilowatt.

This may seem like a huge investment at first, but in the long term, it will pay for itself. Even more promising is that more cities are starting to develop “smart grids,” where excess energy generated by homes using solar can be sold back to the grid. So, if you invest in solar and are still connected to the grid, you can make money from your panels — also an incentive to use less electricity.

American home with energy-efficient solar panels

Zero Mass Water is another company helping people move off the grid, with panels that pull water from the air for human consumption. Started in the arid desert climate of Scottsdale, Arizona, the company manufactures hydro panels that capture water vapor out of the air and filter it, drawing between four and 10 liters per day. Though a setup costs around $4,500, it will pay for itself within five years for a family that regularly consumes bottled water.

Growing your own food is another way to get off the grid, save money, and eat healthier, and it’s probably a lot easier than you think. One couple figured out how to grow their own food at a cost of $300 per year, saving them up to $24,000 compared to buying that quantity and variety from an organic grocer. Not only does this save money, but it encourages you to eat a healthier, plant-based diet.

The amount of plastic and waste generated from the packaging, transportation, and storage of food in our country is egregious. Not to mention that big agriculture, specifically from the meat industry, is a bigger source of methane pollution than the oil and gas industry, and it keeps growing.

Moving off the grid entirely is not feasible for everyone, but implementing small steps can lead to significant returns in the long run.

  1. Thinking Outside the Box

We’re making Mother Earth sick, but she can certainly heal herself. Nowhere is this more evident than in a recently discovered, plastic-hungry fungus called Aspergillus tubingensis. Though scientists are still figuring out how to scale it, this plastic-ingesting fungus was found feasting in a Pakistani landfill. After lab testing on a piece of polyester polyurethane, scientists discovered after two months that “PU film was totally degraded into smaller pieces.” 

Similar discoveries of organisms with an appetite for plastics have been made recently, including a bacteria that devours polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the plastic found in disposable bottles. The bacteria, ideonella sakaiensis, could break down a layer of plastic film in about six weeks if kept at a certain temperature.

Since the 1950s, it’s estimated that we’ve produced 9 billion tons of plastic and less than 10 percent of that plastic is recycled. While many are aware of the enormous island of plastic floating somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, it’s now apparent that the island is significantly larger than we thought. In fact, it’s now three times the size of France.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it’s referred to, is thought to contain nearly two trillion pieces of plastic, and weigh 80,000 tons. That’s 250 pieces of plastic for every human on Earth. No country wants to take responsibility for the garbage patch because it is too far from anyone nation’s shores and it would be an expensive endeavor to clean up.

In the early 2000s, a ship captain drove through the patch, saying it’s not a popular route for sailors to take for a number of reasons. Once he hit the patch, he understood why. For the week it took to cross the patch, both day and night, all he could see was floating plastic for miles.

Boyan Slat has made it his life’s goal to clean up the ocean. Undeterred by naysayers, and even scientists, telling him it would be impossible to reverse the damage. He is implementing a plan to deploy a floating trash collector in the middle of the Pacific.

At the age of 22, Slat raised $320 million to put his plan into action, and after two years of testing for practicability, he hopes to collect half of the garbage floating in the patch within five years.

If there’s anything to take away from Slat’s efforts, it’s that the actions of one determined individual really can lead to change far greater and far more noble than any government. If we keep this in mind, while making conscious decisions to reduce waste and live sustainably, we can allow Mother Earth to heal herself.

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