I’m officially a snowbird. My partner and I have made the leap from the frigid, ear-nipping, snowtorn, and windswept US north to the balmy Atlantic coast of Florida. (Don’t ask me how this happened, as I swore I’d never become one of Them.) I’m getting acclimated, albeit slowly, to the new culture around me. As I do so, I’ve noticed that my large beach condo community doesn’t seem in tune to sustainability — at all. There are very few visible signs of renewable energy, environmentalism, or eco-living principles. So I’ve decided to make my 2019 New Year’s Resolution a pledge to advocate for increased awareness and action for best environmental practices in my new community.
In this first article of a 2-part series, I’ll describe how individuals can assess their immediate lifestyle choices and environment, thus targeting achievable eco-living goals. Starting small and selecting manageable objectives builds success and confidence, and, whew! is confidence necessary when presenting climate action solutions to larger and often intransigent audiences like condo associations.
In the 2nd and final part to this New Year’s Resolutions series, I’ll turn to renewable energy and outline how infrastructure improvements to a condo complex or other communal living space can produce big environmental impacts.
Defining What Eco-Living Looks Like, Upfront and Personal
Eco-living involves choices about how to use the Earth’s resources for daily living that are consistent with sustainability, in natural balance, and respectful of humanity’s symbiotic relationship with the Earth’s ecology and cycles. The practice and general philosophy of ecological living is highly interrelated with the overall principles of sustainable development.
When I was in my mid-20s, I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and camped there for 2 nights. At no other time of my life was I more keenly in tune with my relationships to nature: the desert conditions and my need to carry out whatever I brought in — a consciousness of other living creatures which were trying to survive the harsh conditions — a sense of vastness in relation to my sole human self. I was a part of, not superior to, my surroundings, and I needed to have minimal to no impact on the areas through which I hiked and camped.
Boiling down the platitudes, people who practice eco-living maintain a comparable zero energy balance budget. What we take, we also return. That means every choice, everyday has the goal of a necessary zero energy gain. For my condo association, that’s going to be a long process. But a New Year’s Resolution about advocating for eco-living is a step toward truly awakening how we in my local area assess our interactions with our environments.
A commitment to zero energy gains requires us to rethink our ingrained habits of consuming if we are to reduce our imprints on the planet. It will take time.
People Power is Good for the Body and Environment
New Year’s Resolution: Map out areas in the condo village where additional sidewalks and bike paths would offer more people the security to get out and walk or ride.
Rationale: In healthy communities, walking and bicycling are a normal part of daily life. Active community environments that offer moderate, daily physical activity have long been recognized as an essential ingredient of a healthy lifestyle. Providing a community with more energy-efficient choices for getting around is an important strategy to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Data trends suggest Americans are increasingly seeking ways to drive less.
Last year I visited the Sustainable City in Dubai. It was amazing! As the first operational Net Zero Energy city in Dubai, The Sustainable City is a working model of what the future could look like. It is a modern application of social, economic, and environmental sustainability in the built environment achieved through innovative design, stakeholder engagement, and future monitoring to sustain itself. Needless to say, cars weren’t part of the interior landscape of the city. Infrastructure in place is designed to benefit the environment and the humans who inhabit it.
Will my condo complex resemble The Sustainable City anytime soon in its expansive walking and biking opportunities? Probably not, but helping associations to see how planned pedestrian and cycling areas improve health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and alleviate strain on community resources is a good start.
Recycling Starts with Rethinking Infrastructures
New Year’s Resolution: Educate the condo association’s board of directors about the benefits of installing recycling bins.
Rationale: Many people fail to separate their waste into recyclables and non-recyclables, and the situation is exacerbated when a local community doesn’t provide receptacles. The natural resources on our planet earth are limited so we must make the most to conserve, recycle, and reuse whenever possible. Recycling efforts can significantly reduce additional waste, and more than 90% of all three generations agree that recycling makes a difference.
The average person generates over 4 pounds of trash every day and about 1.5 tons of solid waste per year. People in the US make more than 200 million tons of garbage each year. The EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it. My condo association can look at some of the benefits of recycling: conserving energy, saving water, preserving resources, reducing air pollution, saving landfill space, and reducing the costs of solid waste collection, transportation, and disposal.
Reject the Plastic!
New Year’s Resolution: Advocate for zero plastic use wherever possible.
Rationale: People in the US throw away about 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour instead of recycling them. It’s possible they don’t know that plastic never goes away — it takes millions of years for plastic to decompose. It’s time for all of us to switch to reusable bags when we shop, to ditch one-time use plastic water bottles, to refuse straws at bars & restaurants, and to intentionally buy products with less packaging.
Plastics not only further contaminate the environment but also pose serious health effects to humans, animals, marine life, and seabirds. Much of the plastic waste that is generated here in the US ends up in the oceans if it is not properly recycled, with over 45,000 pieces of plastic per every square mile of the ocean.
According to Resource Recycling, during the first half of 2018, 30 million pounds were exported to China, down from 379 million during the first half of 2017. Plastic waste exports to China are further challenged by China’s new 25% tariff on recovered plastics, which began in August, 2018. Since China isn’t accepting our plastic waste any longer, the actual 2018 US plastic recycling rate will certainly be even lower than in 2015.
I should mention there is one excellent plastics collection program underway in my condo complex –a beach plastics cleanup program. At each beach boardwalk entrance, there is a small box into which neighbors stuff used plastic bags. As people enter the dunes to walk the beach, they grab a bag, and their walk amidst the roar of the waves and a hunt for shells also has a new objective: to pick up plastics that have been tossed to shore by the tide. It’s an easy, cost-free, and really effective plastics control project that other communities could adopt for their own purposes.
Food Advocacy Can Alter Community Thinking
New Year’s Resolution: Chat up the local Chefs and get a lot more vegetarian and vegan items on the bar and restaurant menus.
Rationale: Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet. Meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, yet they use the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produce 60% of agriculture’s GHG emissions. A plant-based diet cuts the use of land by 76% and halves the greenhouse gases and other pollution that are caused by food production. These and other statistics from a 2018 paper published in Science point over and over how the animal industry demands ever-greater assaults on the living world.
Eco-friendly foods are comprised primarily of plants, which require the fewest resources to produce and causes the least amount of environmental damage and degradation. Ideally, these plants should be grown organically — no chemicals such as pesticides or herbicides in this gal’s red lentil and squash soup — and be locally grown to reduce long distance transportation emissions. The weekly area farmers markets can be a good source for these sustainably grown fruits and vegetables.
If you build a vegetarian and vegan friendly menu, they will order the items. Just look at what happened to Gigi pizzeria in Sydney, Australia when the owners changed their entire business by taking meat, dairy, eggs and other animal products off the menu. Lines still form outside Gigi’s most nights. Sales are up by 27%, food costs are down 10%, and the company’s social media following has increased by 500%. My condo complex can not just survive, but thrive, by adding in a lot more vegetable-oriented items to their menus.
Composting Reduces a Lot of Waste
New Year’s Resolution: Chat up a small group of interested gardeners to spearhead a composting initiative.
Rationale: My condo community does have a master gardener who is quite talented and who helps everyone to appreciate the color and line of the natural world through a Remembrance Garden. It, like other urban gardens around the world, plays an important role in offsetting carbon emissions. With the right combination of imagination and incentives, the remembrance garden waste could be mulched and returned to support healthy soil.
That would be a starting place to creating a separate location where household composting could take place. Composting could really help to lower our condo carbon footprint. Food scraps and yard waste together currently make up about 30% of what we throw away and should be composted instead. Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It:
- enriches soil
- helps retain moisture
- suppresses plant diseases and pests
- reduces the need for chemical fertilizers
- encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter into rich nutrient-filled material
- reduces methane emissions from landfills
Lose (at Least Some of) the Lawn!
New Year’s Resolution: Model for the golfing committee how contemporary golf courses are altering plants in the rough as a way to reduce fertilizer runoff. For example, golf course architect Andy Staples redesigned one course in New Mexico, earning it recognition from Golf Digest as a top 10 courses in North America.
Rationale: Traditional American landscaping focuses on maintaining a manicured green lawn. However, native trees, shrubs, ground cover, prairie or meadow patches, flower beds, and attractively mulched areas are better environmental choices for people and wildlife. Approximately 40 million US acres are planted as lawn, including residential and commercial properties and golf courses. More land in the US is devoted to lawns than irrigated crops like corn or wheat. 30-60% of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns, depending on the city. 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on U.S. lawns annually. Yard waste, mostly grass clippings, makes up 20% of municipal solid waste collected, and much of it ends up in landfills. Lawns have less than 10% of the water absorbing capacity of natural woodlands, which contributes to suburban flooding.
Since 1982 the United States Golf Association (USGA) has distributed about $18 million through a university grants program to investigate environmental issues related to the game of golf, with a special emphasis on the development of new grasses that use less water and require less pesticide use. Improved cultivars of buffalograss, grass that can be irrigated with high-salt or brackish waters, and new grass varieties for golf that reduce water and pesticide use are a starting place.
Rough areas of a golf course often constitute the largest span of turf to maintain, and it is here where native grasses may become more prevalent as water restrictions emerge for golf courses and their owners, like my condo association.
And the chemicals that golf courses use are devastating! Of the 30 most commonly used turf pesticides, 19 can cause cancer, 13 are linked to birth defects, 21 can affect reproduction, and 15 are nervous system toxicants. The most popular and widely used lawn chemical, 2,4-D, which kills broadleaf weeds like dandelions, is an endocrine disruptor with predicted human health hazards ranging from changes in estrogen and testosterone levels, thyroid problems, prostate cancer and reproductive abnormalities. 2,4-D has also been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Other turf chemicals, like glyphosate (Roundup), have also been linked to serious adverse chronic effects in humans.
Native grasses eliminate the need for pesticides and, if in wider adoption on US golf course rough areas, would be safer for human health.
Today our understanding of the scale of the risks posed by climate change is much better developed and supported by seriously tested and globally accepted evidence. It would be hard to imagine a more complex risk management issue than that posed by climate change, as the actions needed to produce a similar zero energy balance budget are enormous. But we can start with examining our own daily lives and committing to living as lightly on the Earth as possible.
Someone who succeeds at living a sustainable lifestyle will use very few resources and will leave the environment as untouched as possible so that future generations will be able to enjoy the same high quality of life that people do today. Bill McKibben says, “In almost every other political fight, a balanced and measured and ‘realistic’ answer makes sense.” Nowhere is this more true than with climate change and coming to terms with our own zero energy balance budget responsibilities to the planet.
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