Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Happy 'Earth Overshoot Day,' aka 'Let's Stop Living Beyond Our Means, Humanity Day'

It's August 1, 2018, and besides being completely astounded that the summer has flown by and I need to register my kids for school tomorrow, I'm utterly amazed that it's already Earth Overshoot Day.

What is Earth Overshoot Day, you ask? Well, that's the sad and sorry day that we humans have officially used more resources than our poor planet can replenish for the year. Or as stated more precisely and academically on the Earth Overshoot Day web site,

"Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity's demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. We maintain this deficit by liquidating stocks of ecological resources and accumulating waste, primarily carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Earth Overshoot Day is hosted and calculated by Global Footprint Network, an international think tank that coordinates research, develops methodological standards and provides decision-makers with a menu of tools to help the human economy operate within Earth's ecological limits.

To determine the date of Earth Overshoot Day for each year, Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of that year that Earth's biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity's Ecological Footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet's biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity's Ecological Footprint (humanity's demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:

(Planet's Biocapacity / Humanity's Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day"

Whichever explanation you prefer, the whole thing frankly sucks. Put slightly differently, in 2018 we'll use the equivalent of 1.7 Earth's worth of resources to support human civilization. As a species, we're collectively living well beyond our means--I say collectively, because of course there are plenty of people in this world who barely have access to enough resources to survive, so it's not as if each and every one of us as individuals is behaving recklessly here. But our collective impact and demand for the limited resources available is out of control.

This is not a new phenomenon, alas, but this year we have reached the earliest collective Earth Overshoot Day ever. Check out our "progress" in terms of consumption of resources since humans first started overshooting Nature's annual budget around 1970:

As I said, this is the earliest collective overshoot day. Some countries (like mine, the United States of America) clearly consume more than others. So the Global Footprint Network has also calculated when Earth Overshoot Day would occur if the entire human population of Earth consumed as much as the population of each given country. Those figures are called Country Overshoot Days. Here's a graphic displaying those dates for 2018:

If it's hard for you to read, you can check out a larger version and associated data at https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/country-overshoot-days/. Let me just point out that if everyone consumed the way we do in the US, Earth Overshoot Day would have happened way back on March 15th. 😒 Our consumption is outpaced only by that of the United Arab Emirates, Luxembourg, and Qatar (so take whatever incredibly small comfort you can from that).

If you're not depressed enough already, you can use the Global Footprint Network's calculators to determine your "personal overshoot day"--how many Earths would we need if everyone lived their lives like you? http://www.footprintcalculator.org/. You don't have to show anyone your results. But it may get you thinking about what you might do to reduce your level of consumption.

And that's what all this information, and this post, is really about, rather than trying to make you feel guilty (although it sure does that effectively--I feel guilty, don't you?). It's about giving you a visual, relatable way to understand big concepts like global resource consumption, and hopefully be inspired to act in some small way. Things like sustainability and waste reduction can be abstract, and when a waste reduction and reuse advocate like me starts spouting facts and figures or talking about some case study of horrific resource depletion or pollution happening on the other side of the planet from you, even if you care in the moment and feel empathy for those directly impacted, it's hard to maintain that level of concern or understand how all of it effects you, because the impact isn't direct and the price paid isn't immediate. That's normal. We all have coping mechanisms to keep from being overwhelmed. The trouble is, those mechanisms can be too effective and numb us into inaction. Or maybe they aren't effective and we do get overwhelmed, and then we don't act because we have no idea where or how to start in order to improve the situation. But we have to act. All of us. In whatever small way we can, so that we can stop "drawing down the biosphere's principal rather than living off its annual interest."

So, what can we do? You already know and probably learned it in elementary school. "Reduce, reuse, recycle." Consult the EPA's Waste Management Hierarchy.

Think about ways to reduce the amount of resources you consume. Maybe you turn off that extra light which you don't need to have on. Maybe you refuse products offered that you don't need, especially if they're meant to be disposable (think of all the news lately about companies eliminating their use of single use plastic straws). Find some small way you can reduce your consumption and do it. And then think of another way, and do that. Repeat as you're able, a little bit at a time. It really does get easier to do with practice, and it usually saves you money too. The entire focus of this blog is reuse--and that's one of the best ways to reduce consumption. If resources have already been extracted from the environment and/or human labor has already been spent on creating a product, then those materials and products should be used for as long as possible, as many times as possible in their current form, to avoid the need to extract MORE from the natural pools of resources. Reuse can be simple, like donating old clothes you don't need so someone else can use them, or a little more complex, like repairing an item with minor performance issues or damage instead of choosing to replace it. And I've explained it before, but I'll reiterate--reuse comes before recycling, which is breaking down a product or material into constituents to become feedstocks in the creation of new items. Recycling is important, but it uses energy and other resources, and materials aren't always easy to reclaim from products. Even if they are, the quality of some materials degrade with every time they go through the recycling process, and they can't be used in quite the same way their next time around--this is called downcycling. So start by reducing. Where reduction isn't possible, reuse whenever you can, repair rather than replace, and when you no longer need or want something that still can be used, donate it, pass it on, or sell it so someone else can use it. And finally, when an item can't be practically reused anymore, recycle it if the infrastructure to do so exists in your area. If you observe materials that can't be recycled, contact the manufacturer and tell them you'd like to see their products be made from only materials that can be reclaimed for recycling. Or, depending on the situation, contact local authorities and let them know you'd like to see recycling options for the material in your community (e.g. if your curbside recycling accepts plastics with resin codes 1 and 2 only, and you'd like to see all types of plastics recycled). For more ideas, explore the "Solutions" section of the Earth Overshoot site. Also check out the "Steps to #MoveTheDate" section for specific tips.


And remember what the Global Footprint Network says in that section on solutions: "The current trend is not our destiny. The past does not necessarily determine our future. Our current choices do. Through wise, forward-looking decisions, we can turn around natural resource consumption trends while improving the quality of life for all people. While our planet is finite, human possibilities are not. The transformation to a sustainable, carbon-neutral world will succeed if we apply humanity's greatest strengths: foresight, innovation, and care for each other. The good news is that this transformation is not only technologically possible, it is also economically beneficial and our best chance for a prosperous future." In other words, we got ourselves into this mess. We can get ourselves out of it. We just need to recognize the problem and make better, smarter choices.

It's August 1, 2018. Seems like a good day to begin shaping a better destiny for ourselves, doesn't it?

#MOVETHEDATE



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

#BeatPlasticPollution By Choosing Reuse on #WorldEnvironmentDay


Today is an important "holiday" of sorts for those of us who are sustainability professionals. On this day in 1972, the UnitedNations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden, began (conference dates were June 5-16, 1972). The purpose of that conference was to discuss human interactions with the environment, as well as encouraging governments and international organizations to take action related to environmental issues, and providing guidelines for such action. This was the UN's first major conference on international environmental issues, and it culminated in what's commonly called the "StockholmDeclaration”—the first document in international environmental law to recognize the right to a healthy environment. Two years later, in 1974, the first World EnvironmentDay was held on June 5 with the theme of “Only One Earth.” Since then, World Environment Day has been celebrated annually on June 5th. Each year has a theme around which activities center, and beginning in the late 1980s, the main celebrations began to rotate to different cities around the globe. Learn more about the UN Conference on the Human Environment at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/milestones/humanenvironment and the history of World Environment Day at http://worldenvironmentday.global/en/about/world-environment-day-driving-five-decades-environmental-action


This year’s World Environment Day theme, chosen by the host nation, India, (New Delhi is the host city) is “beating plastic pollution,” with the tagline “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.” If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already aware of why reuse is so important and why “reuse” is a higher priority on the US EPA Waste Management Hierarchy than recycling or other forms of materials management (if you need a refresher on that, check out myprevious post highlighting a “Well-written Piece on Reuse vs. Recycling”). Still, it’s worth taking a moment to ponder some statistics related to plastic consumption that make the choice of reusable products rather than single use products so important. According to the WorldEnvironment Day web site: "While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences. Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Every year we use up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags. In total, 50 per cent of the plastic we use is single use. Nearly one third of the plastic packaging we use escapes collection systems, which means that it ends up clogging our city streets and polluting our natural environment. Every year, up to 13 million tons of plastic leak into our oceans, where it smothers coral reefs and threatens vulnerable marine wildlife. The plastic that ends up in the oceans can circle the Earth four times in a single year, and it can persist for up to 1,000 years before it fully disintegrates. Plastic also makes its way into our water supply – and thus into our bodies. What harm does that cause? Scientists still aren't sure, but plastics contain a number of chemicals, many of which are toxic or disrupt hormones. Plastics can also serve as a magnet for other pollutants, including dioxins, metals and pesticides."


To combat the environmental and human health issues associated with the global addiction to single use plastics, the UN Environment Programme is encouraging people to join the global game of #BeatPlasticPollutiontag. Here’s how to play:
  • Choose which type of single-use plastic you're ready to give up.
  • Take a selfie (photo or video) showing yourself with the reusable alternative that you're ready to embrace.
  • Share your selfie on social media and "tag" three friends, businesses or high-profile people to challenge them to do the same within 24 hours. Be sure to use the #BeatPlasticPollution hashtag and mention @UNEnvironment.


So what single use plastic item will you pledge to give up today—straws, plastic shopping bags, bottled water, plastic coffee pods, or something else? Here are some resources to support potential positive changes:

·      
 Check out https://thelastplasticstraw.org/ to learn more about the impacts of single use plastic straws on the environment, particularly on wildlife. See also thisWaste 360 article on National Skip the Straw Day. If you can opt to drink straight from your glass or take-out cup, that’s great, but if circumstances (e.g. drinking in the car, dental equipment such as braces or expanders, offering a drink to child that hasn’t learned how to handle a cup, etc.) mean the use of a straw would still be preferred, consider reusable stainless steel or glass straws, which can be washed using special brushes typically available from the same vendors as the reusable straws. Encourage party planners, restaurants, and other large food service operations to consider sturdy paper straws rather than plastic. Paper straws will at least degrade faster than plastic, and the resulting materials won’t be harmful. Where composting facilities exist, paper straws could be put into the compost bin along with food scraps. There are even edible options like the LOLISTRAW or the simple switch to using hollow pasta to sip your drink, as is done in a restaurant in Bristol in the UK. For even more alternatives, see https://thelastplasticstraw.org/resources/.

Reusable tote bags for groceries are pretty common these days, with many retailers selling their own branded bags near check outs. If you struggle to remember to bring in your reusable bags from your car to the grocery store, consider options that can fold into a pouch when not in use. There are some small enough to clip onto your keys, like those made by Chico bags, so if you’ve remembered your car keys, you’ll have at least one reusable bag with you (if you’ve locked your keys in the car, you have more immediate problems than waste reduction!). I’ve gone a step further and purchased a few cloth produce bags to replace the plastic options offered by stores; just a few examples include Chico’s produce bags and those made by Ecobags. Also, are you faithfully taking reusable bags into your grocery store, but not using them at other retailers like the book store, clothing store, etc.? Start using them whenever you know you’ll need a bag, or if you’re only making a small purchase, tell the retailer you don’t need a bag at all. 
If you're reading this blog you probably don't need suggestions for a reusable water/beverage bottle, but let me point out a couple of twists on the concept. Consider a product that can be both bottle and cup, like a traditional thermos or the Dopper by Preserve, which can be both a bottle and a cup. Currently produced in the Netherlands, Preserve will be working to ultimately manufacture the Dopper in the US from 100% recycled materials. Secondly—I always say the greenest product is the one you already own. Consider washing out a glass jar that originally held sauce, jelly, or other product, or use an old mason jar to hold your cold beverages. If you're lucky like me, you’ve got a mason jar-style mug with the logo of your favorite local barbecue joint, which once upon a time held delicious sauce. 


If you’re using a beverage maker that employs single-serving plastic pods, reusable versions of those “coffee pods” exist, into which you can put your own coffee grounds or tea that you’ve bought in bulk. Check out alternatives at Perfect Pod.