The fact that global warming is driving our planet into a state of distress is not news. We have been watching the climate change for decades, and we can now see how human activity has pushed our environment to the brink of destruction. The daily struggle of the 21st century is how to reconcile our modern lifestyles with the knowledge that every drive to work and every piece of disposable packaging is hurting the planet even further.
Finally, our generation is actually ready to do something about it. The climate is deteriorating faster than ever and millennials are prepared to take on the fight. This means reducing our individual carbon footprints by supporting sustainable brands and cutting down on waste in our day-to-day lives. When we as consumers put pressure on businesses they will put in the effort to reduce their impacts, creating more large-scale change. The power to heal our environment is in our hands.
The standing motto for eco-friendly efforts in the home is “reduce, reuse, recycle.” These are words that environmentalists live by as well as a catchy tagline for sustainable branding. Of the three missions contained within that motto, the one that gets the most attention is the last: recycle. Recycling efforts by far dominate household and individual-level attempts at green living. The unfortunate truth is that recycling can only have a minimal positive impact on climate change at best even if it is done efficiently, which it is not. According to a study conducted by the EPA, “In 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash and recycled and composted about 87 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.3 percent recycling rate.” This means that even with taglines like “reduce, reuse, recycle” we are still producing hundreds of tons of waste in a single year that will directly affect our ecosystems. To make matters worse, another study conducted revealed that “about 80 percent of what Americans throw away is recyclable.” Even if we were recycling efficiently it would not be the answer to our problems, and what we are doing now is far from efficient.
So what else can we do?
As far as halting global warming, we are past the point of no return. The climate is going to experience significant changes in the coming years as a result of our past actions. What we need to do now is take decisive action to minimize those changes and alleviate the stress to our planet and its inhabitants as much as possible. This has to be concrete and personal. The good news is that I believe we are prepared to take those steps.
The most important thing that we can do to improve our impact on the planet is not to recycle, but to reduce our waste. This means cutting out single-use plastics, transitioning to renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, and finding anywhere in our lives where we can repurpose and reuse things instead of simply throwing them away. In the future, look for reusable packaging initiatives rather than single-use or recycled materials. For example, a new project called "Loop" has created a program that will allow brands to begin selling their products in reusable metal or glass containers that will be sent back to the company after consumption in order to be cleaned, refilled, and redistributed, resulting in zero waste. Many major brands have already committed to this initiative, allowing Loop to begin as a pilot project in May of 2019 in New York and Paris before expanding to more cities depending on its initial success. Reducing waste is the key to helping the planet, but in the modern world, it is unrealistic to ask people to give up the luxuries and comforts of life that drive consumerism. I am not suggesting that we revert back to a pre-industrial revolution lifestyle, I am merely saying that we need to use our power as consumers to change the way that we balance comfort and sustainability.
Studies show that the overwhelming majority of consumers are willing to spend more money to shop at brands that report environmentally-friendly practices, and no demographic more so than us millennials. Individual efforts to live more sustainable lives create a bottom-up chain of change, going from consumers to producers to government and law. Business practices are directly driven by consumer preferences, so if we show that we are willing to spend our money on sustainable products then it follows that more companies will make efforts to reduce their carbon footprints in order to meet that demand. Ultimately it is these large-scale changes that will make the most difference in mitigating carbon emissions and slowing the rate of global warming, but it starts with us.
Reduce, reuse, recycle was an appropriate tagline for many years, but the time has come to take a more radical approach to sustainable living. Recycling is a solution of the past; it is time to reduce, reduce, reduce!