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Sustainability: What is it? Why is it important?

by Grace Kaney

Sustainability is the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. This may seem like a very difficult concept to achieve, and one person cannot change the Earth alone. But by learning about sustainability and taking the steps to live a more sustainable lifestyle, we can improve the state of our planet. The ideas of climate change, global pollution, natural resource depletion, deforestation, and many other serious environmental issues are very real and prominent in our world today. These problems may seem very frightening, but there are ways to undo the environmental problems that we have created.

Becoming low to zero waste is one of the biggest ways to reduce pollution and improve the state of our Earth. Zero waste means having absolutely no garbage. In 2013, Americans threw away 254 million tons of trash. Just because we “throw it away” does not mean it is permanently gone. That trash is still on our Earth and can pollute our water, soil, and air. As a teenager and a student, it is very hard to achieve zero waste. Alternatively, there is low waste which just means reducing the amount of waste you create. It means use what you have until you’re done with it.

Try to avoid throwing away things and instead reuse and recycle those items. Donate old clothes, turn old clothes into something new, take old towels and make a bath mat or take bed sheets and make a new bag. If you don’t like something you bought, resell it or use it as a gift. If you finish something, replace it with a more sustainable option. Some sustainable options are: shampoo and conditioner bars, bamboo compostable toothbrushes, thrift stores instead of fast fashion, using reusable containers instead of one use plastics, and other low/zero waste products.

Living in a small town in Iowa, finding these things may be very difficult. We do not have any zero waste stores, and most of the things we buy come in single use packages. To combat this, try to take advantage of the dried fruit and nut dispensers at stores. You can take your own containers to decrease waste. Some stores that I really enjoy are: Fresh Thyme, Whole Foods, and the nutrition section of Hyvee. These stores can be pretty expensive, so I only buy what I need.

To reduce the amount of trash you throw away, try recycling more often or try composting. A lot of the time I find myself throwing away plastic containers, but the truth is most of them can be recycled or reused. There are also many things that you can compost instead of throwing them away. Starting a compost bin is not hard and can be a great way to reuse waste. If it’s winter or you have too much compost in the bin already, a good way to still save food scraps is to put it in a bag and freeze it. This keeps it fresh and prevents it from rotting. There are reusable plastic bags that you can use as an alternative to ziploc bags when freezing your food scraps.

With this compost, you can use it as food for flowers or you could grow your own fruits and vegetables and use the compost as nutrients for the plants. By growing your own food, it limits trips to the grocery store, which reduces the amount of pollution from cars. It also is very rewarding to cook with the food you have grown. Gardening is very easy and requires very minimal maintenance. Starting a community garden is a good way to increase the amount of produce you can grow, and is a good way to get your neighbors to reduce their waste and pollution. You also get nutritional benefits from eating fruits and vegetables, and by having all this fresh food, it discourages eating out. You can also sell this fresh produce at a farmers market as a source of summer income.

Recently, I have become more aware of my carbon footprint when it comes to food. I was a vegetarian for about 4 years and recently have decided to go vegan. Meat, dairy, and egg production is terrible for the environment. It causes loss of wild area due to agriculture which is the leading cause of current mass extinction of wildlife. Animal agriculture also takes a lot of food, water, and energy. In America, our animal agriculture eats about the same amount of crops as we do. If we have less animal agriculture, it creates more room for crops and can restore the ecosystem and give habitats to the animals that were once there. We can also conserve water, grow more food that we can give to hungry people, reduce carbon footprint, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing animal agriculture.

There are many health risks of eating animal products. I’m not saying everyone should go vegan because that would be impossible and unrealistic. What I am asking everyone to do is to eat less animal products overall. Participate in things like Meatless Monday, or using a different protein other than animal products in your meal. There are many available meat replacements if you still want a meat flavor, but there are also seeds and nuts that are high in protein. Some people swear that they can’t give up meat, but they can still reduce their intake by eating a meatless meal every few days. It may not seem like a very big change, but it causes a very positive and large impact. A lot of foods are naturally vegan or made vegan unintentionally. By eating things like this, we can improve our health and also improve our carbon footprint.

Animals are a big cause of air pollution, but cars are also a big contributor to the quality of our air. As a high schooler who has a car, I drive everywhere. Lots of high schoolers love their car and see it as freedom to go and do whatever they want. But cars produce a lot of emissions and lower the quality of air. An alternative to driving is biking or walking. As someone who is particularly lazy, this is a pretty big change for me, but there are health benefits as well as environmental benefits to walking instead of driving. Avoiding driving is nearly impossible, especially if you live far away from your job or school, but when you have the chance, choose not to drive.

A few years ago, my mom went to Northern California. There was so much smog in the air that she contracted bronchitis and pneumonia. Smog isn’t just made of car emissions, it is also made from the smoke and pollution of big factories that burn coal. If we buy from these industries less, it causes them to burn less coal and produce less emissions. If we demand less from these factories, they start producing and supplying them less. An alternative to buying things from these factories is buying things locally. Downtown Davenport has so many little shops that you can buy from instead of buying from Amazon or other big companies.

Some factories burn coal for electricity. We use a lot of electricity and most of the things we do are online. We can reduce the amount of electricity we use by unplugging unused appliances, using natural lighting as opposed to a lamp or overhead light, opening windows for cold air instead of using air conditioning, using a blanket and sweatshirt instead of turning on the heat, and many other things. These are very simple changes that minimally impact everyday life. Electricity can also be pretty pricey, and by reducing the amount we use we can also reduce our electric bills. If you are someone who relies on electricity, there are sources of renewable energy energy such as: solar, geothermal, and wind. These can be pretty expensive, but solar panels are overall cheaper than traditional electricity.

These are just some of the many ways that you can become more sustainable. There are so many other options if these do not work for your lifestyle. Just by making small changes in your day, like eating a banana instead of a bag of chips, makes a difference. If we start now, we can undo more of the environmental problems than if we started making changes in ten years. Everyone can make small changes like recycling your bottle instead of throwing it away or simply turning off your lights. Becoming more sustainable does not mean that your life revolves around it. It simply means that you are actively taking measures, big or small, to make a better environment for yourself. So now, I ask you: what can you do to become more sustainable?

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