Small steps to being more sustainable

Climate anxiety, and small ways individuals can help

Content note: This article contains brief discussion of mental health.

For the first time in human history, Earth is looking like it has an expiry date. Since the Industrial Revolution, the planet’s average temperatures have risen by just over 1° Celsius, but most of this warming (two-thirds) actually occurred in the last 45 years (since 1975).

This may not sound like much, but it is an average taken from temperatures recorded across the entire surface of the planet. It takes a huge amount of heat to warm all of the oceans, atmosphere and land by this much. Historically, it has taken only a 1°C decrease in global temperatures to create a Little Ice Age.

What we’re facing is a very real and threatening change. In response, activists rose up to rally their countries’ leaders to start making legislative change to reduce contributions to global warming. Climate activism really hit its stride in the 2000s, with climate-specific organisations like 350.orgEnergy Action Coalition, and the Global Call for Climate Action being created. In the 2010s, with the help of public figures like Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, a larger proportion of the general population started to listen and to take note.

Attenborough’s 2019 documentary, Climate Change – The Facts, was considered a ‘call to arms‘ when it was broadcast in the UK. It was a more explicitly-titled follow-up to his famed Blue Planet II documentary which addressed ocean pollution and its impacts on wildlife. These documentaries are thought to have created and contributed to the ‘Attenborough effect‘, which has seen a 53% reduction in single-use plastic (namely plastic carrier bags).

Person Holding Plastic Bottle
Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

Greta Thunberg took a different approach, and famously rallied for change on an institutional level. The beginnings of her activism can be traced back to encouraging her family to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, but also to protesting outside parliament in Sweden – demanding the government do more – and organising weekly climate protests at school.

Most unnerving about Thunberg’s similar ‘Greta effect‘ is that it has taken a child (as of 2020, Thunberg is only 17 – she rose to global prominence as a climate activist in 2018 but started protesting in 2015) – and the response of children in the Fridays for Future movement – to awaken many world-leading politicians to the very real threat of climate change. It shouldn’t be just another item on the list, anymore – it’s our top priority.

Climate change and sustainable living is a political issue, having disproportionate affects particularly on people living in poverty and the Global South. The Global North, which contains some of the planet’s largest polluters, has a responsibility to curb its pollution so as to reduce the impacts on the regions at the most risk.

Climate change is already affecting water security, increasing natural disasters like flooding and drought, and leading species to extinction. The smallest polluters are equally the least equipped to deal with the impacts the Global North has thrust upon them. Whilst the wildfires in Los Angeles and Australia are devastating and incur a cost of millions of dollars, these nations are prepared and can respond effectively. The same is not true for countries like the Philippines, Haiti, Tajikistan and Botswana.

Man Pouring Water from Dipper on Blue and Grey House
Photo by hitesh choudhary from Pexels

Experiencing the detriments of climate change, watching the world crumble, even just thinking about climate change is extremely mentally taxing. The link between climate change and mental health issues like depression, anxiety and PTSD is very real. Thunberg herself has experienced serious mental health impacts as a result of climate change, and how little was being done about it.

Climate change makes us feel guilty because we’re not doing enough, and powerless because the things we can do on an individual level simply aren’t enough to enact real change. However, to put the onus on individual people – especially those at the most risk – is to shift the blame from the real perpetrators of climate change: governments and corporations.

That being said, making individual changes is still useful (even if on a small scale) in reducing pollution and reducing climate anxiety. Even making small changes is better than nothing at all.

Here are a few recommendations of small, simple changes everyone can make to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.

Cut out single use

Set of dental tools and cutlery near glass bottle
Photo by alleksana from Pexels
  • Straws Paper straws are better than plastic straws, but you know what’s even better? Metal straws. If you like straws, invest in a metal set and keep one in your daily bag.
  • Cutlery Buy a set of reusable cutlery that you can also keep in your bag so you don’t have to pick up single-use cutlery on the go. Better yet, make a home-made set using cutlery you already have.
  • Coffee cups If you like coffee shops for your hot drinks, invest in a travel mug. A lot of cafes also offer discounts on their hot drinks if you provide your own cup.
  • Water bottles Invest in a steel water bottle – they’re better for both your health and the planet’s health than plastic. Or just reuse bottles you already have. Just don’t buy a new one.
  • Advertisements Flyers, badges, rubber bracelets – whatever someone is trying to hand out to you in the street, say no and explain why. They might just pass it on to their boss.
  • Tupperware Store food in Tupperware, rather than tinfoil or clingfilm. If you buy takeout and they deliver it in plastic tubs, keep and reuse the tubs. You could even suggest more sustainable alternatives to their packaging in your review.
  • Makeup removal Invest in a reusable makeup removal cloth – they’re actually pretty cheap, and often gentler on your skin. Avoid makeup wipes, or buy some biodegradable wipes instead – big brands like Simple and Nivea are starting to sell them!
Use what you already have if you can!

Sustainable periods

Products of personal hygiene for women on wooden stand
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

If there’s an industry that relies on single-use products, it’s the period industry. Natracare reports that pads take up to 500 years to break down and that a packet of pads contains the equivalent of 5 plastic carrier bags. Tampons similarly contain plastics, typically come with a plastic applicator, and are wrapped in plastic packaging.

Alternative, more sustainable period products include:

For tampon users:

  • Menstrual cup This is a small, flexible, usually silicon cup that can be used instead of a tampon. It is inserted into the vagina where it collects blood rather than absorbing it. They can last up to 10 years, and silicon cups are good for the environment because they dispose quicker than plastics.
  • Applicator free tampons Pretty common, and usually cheaper!
  • Reusable applicators If you can’t quite get to grips with using a tampon without a plastic applicator, you can invest in a reusable applicator instead. Applicator-free tampons are widespread, and removing the applicator reduces most of the plastic content.
  • Cardboard applicator tampons Cardboard is much better for the environment, and this might be an easier switch than to a reusable applicator (definitely cheaper!).
  • Callaly Tampliners I’ve never tried these but I see them everywhere! The tampliner is a tampon for menstruators scared of leaks, offering a tampon and pantyliner combined. The idea here is to reduce the waste created by using a tampon and a pad simultaneously.

For pad users:

  • Period pants These are pants with a pad-like section of absorbent material in the gusset. They are designed to last all day, so absorb more than your usual pad or tampon. Click here to read my review of Modibodi period pants.
  • Reusable pads Cloth, reusable pads were the original period period product. Loads of companies sell them, usually in fun colours, too!
  • Plastic free pads These aren’t that common yet, but they exist! If you like pads and aren’t ready for any of the opt

Dairy alternatives

Group White and Black Cow
Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

Dairy cows are the world’s biggest polluter. Reduce demand by switching out dairy for a plant-based alternative. My favourite is oat milk, but there are lots of incredible options on the market including almond, rice, soy and pea milk.

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Not all milks are the same 🥛 @theearthlingco

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If you’re not 100% ready to make the switch:

  • Alternate between dairy and a plant-based milk
  • Just switch out the milk and keep eating dairy products like ice cream, cheese, butter and yogurt (or vice versa)
  • If you drink a lot of milk, switch in a plant-based option for one of your uses: have dairy in your coffee and plant-based in your porridge
  • Buy your milk from a local farmer rather than a large corporation
  • Do your research: buy your dairy milk from a company making ethical changes to the way it runs

The best part about making the switch is that you might also feel better physically for it. Human bodies aren’t made to process cows milk. I didn’t realise until I made the switch to oat milk how queasy cows milk was actually making me feel.

Buy less, reuse more

Folded Assorted-color Shirts
Photo by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels
  • Shop less Buy fewer things, only buy things if you need them, don’t succumb to the sale, resist the fads. Ask yourself: Do I need this? Will I get use out of this? Is it going to last?
  • Shop second hand Apps like Depop, eBay or even Facebook Marketplace are amazing places to find great items at a low(er) cost. If you prefer physical shopping, charity shops and second hand shops are a great alternative!
  • Rent clothes Rental shopping is growing in the UK, and is a great alternative for things you know you’ll only wear once, like formal wear.
  • Quality If you do need something new, invest in it. Buying higher quality clothes increases their life, and ultimately reduces their cost-per-wear, which is a great feeling
  • Materials Up to 64% of clothes today contain plastic. This is in the form of synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide. When washed, they release millions of microfibres that pollute the ocean, and they also don’t compose when we throw them out. Check the item description to find out what your clothes are actually made of! Natural fibres – like cotton, linen and wool – are best.
  • DIY This doesn’t necessarily mean making your own clothes (although, if you’re talented enough to do that, more power to you). Invest in a small sewing kit – they’re so cheap that I’ve got a couple saved from Christmas crackers – and fix items that have broken or adjust items that don’t fit the same as they used to. Alternatively, visit a seamstress and they can do it for you!
  • Ethics If you’re in need of a shopping spree (it really is self care, sometimes), check the ethics of the stores you’re shopping in. Good On You is a great app to quickly check up the efforts stores are making towards sustainability.

These points apply to everything, not just clothing. However, fast fashion contributes 10% of the world’s emissions. If you’re looking for a place to start, this is it.

However, also be kind to yourself. It’s easier said that done to make cuts, especially if you love fashion. Alternatively, you could rally your favourite companies to be more ethical and sustainable – Tweet them, email them, leave reviews online.

Eat less meat

Close Photography of Grilled Meat on Griddle

Obviously, the best option for the environment is to go completely vegan. However, this isn’t always the best option for ourselves. Here are some more ethical routes you could take if you’re not ready to go cold turkey vegan:

  • Vegetarianism The next best thing!
  • No beef As I mentioned in the dairy section, cows are the worst polluters. No other meats actually come close (see below). Just cutting out beef is a great change! Beef is also bad for your health, so there’s an added bonus to cutting it out.
  • Alternate Have one meat-free day, one meat day, or one meat-free week, one meat week. You could even just cut out meat for one day a week, or if you tend to have meat for every meal of the day, cut it out of breakfast, or reduce it to only one meal a day.
  • Pescetarianism This means cutting out all meat except fish. Fish still aren’t farmed on any large scale, so the environmental impacts are much lower than traditional meats.

Remember: You cannot save the world on your own. Even a small change is incredible. If you do even one thing on this list, you’re doing it right. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not the most sustainable person in the world – life is hard enough as it is.

Published by Liv

My name’s Liv, I’m 20 years old, and I’m currently studying English at Jesus College, University of Cambridge. I'm a journalist alongside this blog. Visit my home page or for more.

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