All experts agree the time to clean up the environment is now.
The health of ecosystems we and all other species depend upon is deteriorating more rapidly than ever, warns a new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Threatened are the foundation of global economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life.
Journalist David Wallace-Wells, author of the book The Uninhabitable Earth concurs.
"Projections estimate that if we don't change course on global warming, we could have a global GDP that's 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change," said Wallace-Wells in a recent interview. "That's an impact that's twice as big as the Great Depression, and it would be permanent."
The good news, according to the IPBES report, is that it's not too late to avert the crisis. But, IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson warns, we must act fast and "start now at every level from local to global. Through transformative change, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably.”
This transformative change would require a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors to restore nature's health. Though daunting, the 1 million plant and animal species at risk of extinction — and the children who would be disproportionately affected by the consequences — depend upon it.
Children have virtually no part in generating the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, but they bear the brunt of its damaging effects — especially those from the most impoverished families, who often live in the most degraded or polluted environments. If we don't act now, they will suffer cataclysmic consequences.
"It's projected that if we don't avoid two degrees of warming, 153 million people will die from air pollution alone. That is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts," warns Wallace-Wells.
How can we reverse this disastrous course? Wallace-Wells believes we need major policy shifts to "zero out" our carbon footprint, which scientists say is the only way to halt global warming. Individuals can do their part, too, by examining their values and habits and changing how they live.
Here's how you can begin making a difference today:
The first step in sustainable living is simple: Buy fewer products, conserve water and energy and generate less waste.
Before you go shopping, ask yourself what you need. Many of our possessions — clothing, shoes, furniture, appliances, electronics — can be repaired or refreshed. If you must buy new, donate gently used items to local charities like the Salvation Army, then consider investing in higher quality purchases so they last longer.
When it comes to resources, there are many ways to reduce water, energy and fossil fuel consumption. Don’t leave the faucet running, take shorter and colder showers, turn off unnecessary lights and wait until you have a full load to run the dishwasher or washing machine. Get leaks fixed right away, and replace old appliances with newer, more efficient models. Whenever possible, travel by land instead of flying, and take public transportation, walk, or bike instead of driving.
Replacing disposable items with reusable versions can drastically cut household-trash volume. Invest in sustainable (reusable) shopping bags, water bottles, to-go cups, dining ware, cutlery, straws, food containers, coffee pods, coffee filters, razors, napkins, paper towels and batteries.
Buying second-hand is another way to green your consumption — and save money. Check out yard sales, thrift shops, consignment stores, swap meets, Craigslist and Etsy for nearly new — or vintage — versions of just about everything you could need or want. Amazon and eBay also offer gently used and estate items, too. If possible, shop from local sellers to cut down on shipping-related carbon emissions. When decluttering, consider donating your used goods or become a reseller yourself. Just take care to donate responsibly; many nonprofits aren't set up to accept in-kind donations. And before you give, ask yourself if what you're about to haul to the Salvation Army is something you would consider using or wearing. If not, recycle!
Many towns with recycling ordinances make recycling easy. But If there's no curbside pickup where you live, find out if there's a municipal recycling center nearby. Commonly accepted materials in many areas include plastic, glass, paper, aluminum, tin and cardboard. Some stores will even take used ink cartridges, batteries, CDs, cell phones and other electronic devices.
If you're into DIY, Pinterest is packed with creative ideas for upcycling towels, sheets, clothes, dishes, furniture and more — many of which are fun to do with kids.
The fourth of the Five R's can be a bit tougher because it's all about remembering to say "No."
When you order takeout, for example, tell the restaurant you'll use your own cutlery. When you order a drink in a restaurant or bar, ask for it without the straw. When you're offered a plastic shopping bag at checkout, ideally you can say "No thanks; I brought my own." Leave the miniature toiletries in hotel bathrooms untouched and refuse the daily towel and linen changes at hotels. When traveling by air, forego the prepared meals, which generate an enormous amount of waste.
Think twice before accepting flyers, handouts or give-aways, which can be anything from small branded knick-knacks to small packaged food or drink samples. Unless it’s really something you want and have use for, just politely decline.
After you've reduced, reused, recycled and refused all you can, rot — compost — the rest! If your town has a composting program for organic waste, all you have to do is haul your fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, grass, plant clippings and dry leaves out onto the sidewalk on pickup days. If not, then it's easy to compost at home — outside in a bin or unit you buy or build yourself. If you prefer indoor options and don't mind coexisting with critters, vermicomposting with worms is an efficient way to turn organic waste into mineral rich garden soil.
If you have a yard, grasscycling is a sustainable and time-saving technique for handling grass clippings, weeds and leaves. Grass clippings left in place after mowing can fertilize the soil. Come fall, leaves disposed of in flower beds will do the same trick. Both options mean you can also refuse plastic lawn and leaf bags, which can save you money and reduce the plastic that ends up in landfills. (When you do use lawn bags, choose the paper ones.)
Mulching — when you make your own — also qualifies as rotting. Chop up leaves, grass clippings, wood and bark chips, add pine needles and shredded paper, then spread the mixture around the base of trees and plants to insulate their roots and enrich the soil.
Follow all five R's to the letter, and you'll drastically reduce your waste. But if you want to go all the way, there are Zero Wasters out there who can fit a year's worth of trash in a Mason jar. You may not be quite up to that, but if you make the five R's a habit, you can still make a big difference.
If you want to shop for good, UNICEF Market helps makers of handmade artisanal goods build sustainable businesses that support their families and their communities. At the same time, proceeds from every UNICEF Market purchase help to fund UNICEF's work to save and protect the world’s most vulnerable children.
Top photo: A student plays in the playground of a UNICEF-supported green school, in Éssankro, Côte d’Ivoire, where the latrines operate with recycled water. UNICEF has also taken on plastic pollution in Côte d’Ivoire by building schools with recycled plastic bricks. © UNICEF/UN0294013/Diarassouba