Environmental Sustainability: Why it’s Important and What You Can Do
Every year, Canadians throw away thirty-one million tonnes of garbage.
Only about 30% of these materials are recycled, leaving the rest to live out their decades (even centuries) long lifespans in landfills, oceans, and environments. Though it may oftentimes be out of sight, it should not be out of mind.
Everybody knows garbage is harmful to the environment. Children grow up attending assemblies where images of sea birds being suffocated by pop can rings are projected onto auditorium screens, yet little is taught about what can be done in everyday life to make a difference.
What is environmental sustainability?
The United Nations defines environmental sustainability as making life choices that ensure an equal or better life for others. Interacting responsibly with the planet by maintaining and protecting natural resources is crucial to avoid jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Located at the tip of Southern Ontario, Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) works to further the conservation, restoration, development, and management of natural resources. Created in 1973, this organization has jurisdiction over nine municipalities, including the City of Windsor, and partners with member municipalities, federal and provincial governments, and other organizations to manage conservation issues.
Danielle Stuebing, the Director of Communications & Outreach Services for the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA), shed some light on the importance of sustainability
“Environmental sustainability is critically important to human health, environmental health, and to our economy,” Danielle says. ERCA’s website provides details of some regional climate impacts:
- Severe weather, droughts, pests, and flooding pose challenges for farmers
- The increase of storm cleanup costs, insurance rates, and business disruptions due to increased frequency and intensity of storms
- The spread of illness and disease resulting from prolonged extreme heat
- Increased energy demands during summer months, such as roads, bridges, sewers, and power lines, can overwhelm critical infrastructure
- Fluctuations in Great Lakes water levels impacting shorelines, the shipping industry, coastal wetlands, and tourism and recreation
- Increasing precipitation leads to erosion and sewage overflows
What UWindsor is doing to promote environmental sustainability
The University of Windsor has undertaken many initiatives throughout the years to promote environmental sustainability on campus. Dr. Tanya Basok, UWindsor’s former Environmental Sustainability Advocate between 2016 and 2020, discusses some of these actions.
The Greenhouse Gas Campus Retrofit Project was implemented in 2018, which included upgrades to eight air handling units and control systems as well as new LED lighting throughout several buildings on campus. LED lighting has many environmental benefits as opposed to fluorescent or incandescent lightbulbs, including being more energy-efficient, producing no toxic elements, and having a longer lifespan.
UWindsor food services have committed itself to integrating sustainability into its operations, and they do so in several ways. For example, by purchasing produce grown by local suppliers, fewer greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere because less time is spent on transportation. This is also beneficial to the local economy. The majority of entrees served on campus are prepared from scratch, reducing the amount of plastic packaging used. UWindsor also utilizes a recycling program, which saves tonnes of material from entering landfills each year.
The Campus Community Garden is located next to 372 California Avenue and supports ‘community building and beautification, garden-based education and urban agriculture as a means to improve food security in Windsor while fostering a sense of environmental stewardship. The garden produces and supplies organic food to the community, provides habitat and food for creatures like butterflies and birds, and increases biodiversity and sustainability by retaining rainwater.
What you can do to begin living a more sustainable lifestyle
So, what can be done? Danielle shares some of her tips for beginning the transition into living a more sustainable lifestyle.
“Be mindful in your choices- about everything. This is the best advice I can give, especially to young people.”
This idea is what is often described as conscious consumerism- the practice of making thoughtful decisions when purchasing items and considering the potential environmental impacts. This essentially entails buying a specific item that serves as an alternative, for example, a pack of metal straws rather than a pack of plastic ones or buying nothing at all.
“Forgot your reusable bags? Just carry your stuff with you, even if it’s a bit inconvenient. Did you know an average plastic bag is only used for about 10 minutes but takes 1,000 years to degrade?” Danielle discusses. “Often, if I’m picking up a sandwich or something in a convenience store, the vendor wants to put it in a plastic bag, even if it’s just one thing. Make it normal to decline plastic whenever you can. Also, straws- just say no!”.
Plastic pollution is a major problem in Canada. According to the Government of Canada, Canadians throw away over three million tonnes of plastic annually, and only 9% of this is recycled. Canada has the longest coastline in the world and one-quarter of the world’s fresh water, meaning that the country has a unique responsibility in the fight against plastic pollution.
The Government of Canada put forward a proposal in 2020 that aims to achieve the goal of zero plastic waste by 2030. A key element of the proposal includes the ban on single-use plastics such as bags, cutlery, stir sticks, and straws. As of December 2021, the plan has been given the green light to move forward, allowing Canada to follow in the footsteps of other countries that have banned single-use plastics such as the United Kingdom, Italy, and France.
Danielle’s other tips include:
- Recycle and compost
- Don’t buy bottled water- so many places are now offering bottle refills, bring your own reusable water bottle with you everywhere
- Be mindful of your travel. Consolidate trips to reduce your carbon output, better yet, walk or bike wherever you can
- Adjust your thermostat, a little warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. This is an easy step that can really reduce your energy use
- Try to stay away from fast fashion- this has a huge environmental footprint. We need to normalize having fewer, higher quality clothes in our closet rather than having tons of fast fashion clothes that have a negative impact. Look for clothes made sustainably. Change our mindset, we don’t need twenty shirts and a dozen pairs of jeans in our wardrobe. Not only is this great for the environment, but better for our budgets too!
- Thinking about purchasing a new car in the upcoming years? Think about making it electric! These will become more available, and there is quite a movement to create EV infrastructure across the planet (at the time of writing, an electric vehicle battery plant is set to be built in Windsor by 2025, creating up to 10,000 jobs)
- Share what you know! Tell your parents, friends, and others about your journey towards sustainability, and encourage them to make similar changes
Dr. Basok adds that students can choose sustainability by “supporting locally grown food, especially small farms that rely on sustainable principles” (for example, organic, grass-fed beef, cage-free chickens).
“Reducing meat consumption and eating more vegetables, supporting fair trade, planting native trees, flowers, and shrubs, eliminating or reducing the use of plastics, conserving energy, recycling, reducing waste, using public transportation, participating in Canadian Shoreline Cleanup events (link), joining community gardens, and shopping at farmer’s markets” are all things that can be done to promote sustainability in your personal life and within the community, according to Dr. Basok.
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions is that the things you already own are not environmentally friendly, so you feel the need to run to the nearest Homesense and stock up on brand-new reusable bags, straws, and cups. This is what is referred to as ‘green-buying’, and both you and your wallet will be pleased to hear that it is largely unnecessary.
A study done by the University of Arizona found that people who consume less are generally happier than those who participate in other pro-environmental consumer behaviours, like buying environmentally friendly products. So, the best way to shift towards more sustainable living is to make use of items that you already own.
Here are some do-it-yourself projects that can quickly and easily be completed at home with items you already own.
#1: Turning Old T-Shirts into Rags
The old t-shirts you’ve collected from schools and events throughout the years that are stuffed into overflowing dresser drawers can easily be turned into washable cleaning rags in place of paper towels.
Take your t-shirt and lay it on a flat surface. Using a pair of sharp scissors, cut along the dotted lines: the collar, sleeves, down the middle, and horizontally. Ensure that you are cutting both sides of the shirt.
Once the sleeves are removed, cut along the shorter side for the best shape.
It’s that simple- you’ll finish this five-minute project with fourteen new rags.
#2: Turning T-Shirts into Tote Bags
A second, perhaps less obvious, use for old t-shirts is giving them a second life and transforming them into tote bags. These reusable totes are perfect for grocery shopping, so ditch the plastic bags at checkout.
Lay your shirt on a flat surface and cut along the dotted lines (don’t forget to turn the sleeves into rags!). Create a fringe at the bottom by cutting vertical lines about eight centimeters long from the bottom, two centimeters apart.
Next, turn your shirt inside out. Tie the first three pairs of fringe into tight knots. Then, using the middle pair, take one piece of fabric and tie it with one piece from the other pair. Repeat this step on the other side. Continue this pattern of tying a knot and connecting it with fringe from the next pair. It may seem tricky at first, but once you begin tying it will all come together.
Turn the shirt inside out and you now have a cute and reliable tote bag. If you prefer, you can cut the collar wider and lower for thinner shoulder straps.
#3: Repurposing Glass Jars
There are plenty of uses for glass jars- they can be drinking cups, plant pots, or pencil holders. Although it’s not necessary to remove the label, it makes it easier to see what’s inside the glass, and it is more visually pleasing.
After cleaning an empty glass jar, soak it in hot water with dish soap for about ten minutes. The label should easily scrub off. If not, using rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover should do the trick.
#4: Regrowing Vegetables from Scraps
Did you know that many vegetables can be regrown from just scraps? For example, green onions can be regrown by simply placing them halfway submerged in water. Other vegetables that can easily be regrown at home include celery, romaine lettuce, carrots, and onions.
Do my actions really matter?
It is a well-known fact that the world’s largest companies are the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation, particularly energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and Saudi Aramco. These corporations are unlikely to reconsider their business practices, because shifting to a more sustainable model may not be in their best monetary interests.
This is disheartening, and can lead a person to wonder “if these massive corporations are the true culprit, why do my actions even matter?”
“Really, every purchase you make is a vote you cast for the world you want to live in,” says Danielle.
Many consumers are willing to purchase from companies that align with their own personal values. For example, corporations such as Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and The Body Shop reflect the consumer demand for responsible production and consumption.
Individual action can spark collective change. When one person makes a sustainability-oriented effort, others are more likely to follow. Share your journey with your friends and family, who will in turn share it with theirs.