What does sustainability mean? According to the definition by the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability means meeting the current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Sustainability embraces more than just the environmental concerns; it also includes both social and economic factors. Thus it provides a holistic and inclusive foundation from which to operate.
Why care about sustainability anyway? It is because our very own life depends on clean air, drinkable water, arable land, other species and one another to exist. After all, if we are not breathing air, drinking water and eating plants or animals, we are not living. We are all part of a system, whether on a local or global scale. In order to make choices that will help us to improve our quality of life, we must first understand sustainability and the environmental issues present in our daily lives and how our actions are related to those issues. Once we understand our contribution to the problem, we can then begin to make decisions that will help, not harm, our planet, our future generations and ourselves (Worksbook, p.10).
As Pope John Paul II stated "Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life styles." If we categorize our life style in a way that helps us analyze the environmental impact of our choices, we might end up having three main categories: Water, Energy, and Waste. This article focuses on the problems related with those categories and the solutions that can be done on a personal level.
"By means of water, we give life to everything." (Al-Anbiya, 21:30)
Water is very precious, yet it is very scarce. Even though water covers two thirds of the surface of our planet, the freshwater in rivers, lakes, and streams represent only 0.02% of the earth's total water (United States Geological Survey). According to an estimate from the United Nations, by the year 2025, around 2 million people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity, and two out of three people on earth could be living under conditions of water stress if nothing is done. So, what can you do about it? According to the Sustainability Primer Works Book, the things you can do include finding and fixing the leaks around your home; because leaking faucets and toilets can account for as much as 20 gallons of water lost per person per day (Treehugger team, 2006). You can also install water saving devices, because high efficiency toilets and showerheads can save the average household about 30 gallons of water each day (Walsh, 2009). A low flow high efficiency showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water or less per minute, whereas traditional showerheads use 5 gallons or more per minute. The top priority is changing your behavior. Simply turning off the water while shaving or brushing teeth could save more than 5 gallons (19 liters) of water per day. Keeping a bucket or large pitcher in the bathroom or kitchen to capture the excess water while you are waiting for the hot water to make it to the faucet can get you enough water, which can be used for your pets, plants, to wash produce etc.
"To warn of the dangers is not to despair of the solutions." Al Gore
Much of the world's current energy production is unsustainable. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil to produce electricity depletes non-renewable resources, and releases pollutants that contribute to smog, acid rain and other types of air pollution. Electricity production is indeed the leading cause for industrial air pollution. Replacing your incandescent bulbs with more energy efficient Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFLs) or Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) can be a good start to go green for energy around your house. Lighting accounts for up to 25% of home electricity use (California Energy Commission). CFLs use one-fourth the energy of standard incandescent bulbs to give out the same amount of light, and they last ten times longer. LEDs may even last 50 to100 times longer than the standard light bulbs. According to the US department of Energy: "If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, it would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of more than 800,000 cars annually."
You can also pay attention to heating and cooling in your home.
Basic things like changing the filter, putting on a sweater instead of turning on the heater, and setting the thermostat appropriately might save up to 10% off your electricity bill. Think about buying energy saving appliances when you need to buy new ones, simply look for the signs like ENERGY STAR. Also, shut off appliances whenever possible. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends using "standby-mode" when our computers will be idle for more than 20 minutes. It also points out that 75% of electricity used to power home electronics is consumed when these appliances are "turned off." You can use a power strip to turn everything completely off when finished for the day.
"Waste not want not!" Benjamin Franklin
World economies operate on a take, make, waste model, which is a one-way linear production system in a finite world. The problem with this system is that it operates as though everything were in infinite supply. But this is not the case for our limited resources. Our current practices for waste generation create significant environmental, economic, and public health problems. Generally, the public is unaware where our trash ends-up, and what it causes there. Landfill, also known as a dump, is a site for disposal of the wastes by burial. A large number of adverse impacts may occur from landfill operations. One is serious pollution of the local environment such as contamination of groundwater and/or aquifers by leakage and residual soil contamination during landfill usage. Another is after landfill closure; the generation of methane by organic waste decay (methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, and can itself be a danger to inhabitants of an area.) Then there are simple nuisance problems such as dust, odor, vermin, and noise pollution.
The problem is not only what we do with waste but also what we waste. According to United States Department of Agriculture, over a quarter of the country's food that is approximately 25.9 million tons, gets thrown away every year. On the other hand, the number of cell phones Americans tossed out in 2008 is 130 million (Larry Greenemeler, 2009). Recycling them would have saved enough energy to power 194,000 homes for a year. The current U.S. recycling average for the so-called e-waste, including unwanted cell phones, televisions, PCs, computer peripherals, computer mouses, keyboards and many others, is in the order of 10 to 13%. Sustainability Primer points out the things you can do about waste issues. These include but are not limited to reducing how much you consume and to reuse items whenever possible, to bring your own reusable bag, and reuse paper and plastic bags. Reuse paper and envelopes at home or in the office. Recycle office supplies like printer cartridges, toner etc. At home, recycle everything you can or collect for hazardous household waste. You can also give away or donate things that you don't use. Like the "good old times," repair instead of discard, purchase well designed quality items that last longer. Try to recreate the old-good habit of borrowing and sharing the resources among neighbors and family. It may take some effort but start composting your food waste. In addition to all above, the best thing you can do is "close the loop" by purchasing products made from recycled materials.
All things considered, does it seem like you need to suffer at all to go green?
If we want to change the way things are going, we should listen to what Gandhi said, "I must be the change I wish to see in the world around me". Living in balance with nature requires understanding the value of the bounties we take for granted. Because "In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught" Baba Dioum.
Sustainability Primer Works Book, Worksbook, Community Partners/Sustainable works, Los Angeles, 2009-2010 Update, SMVersion 9.0.
Treehugger Blog, "How to green your water," December 03, 2006. www.treehugger.com
Walsh, B. "Getting real about the high price of cheap food," Time Magazine, Aug 21, 2009.
California Energy Commision, http://www.energy.ca.gov/efficiency/lighting/
Division of Information Technology, UW- Madison "Turn off your monitor to save energy? Do it." December 29, 2005 http://www.doit.wisc.edu/news/story.asp?filename=598
Greenemeler L. Scientific American blog, comment on Trashed Tech: Where Do Old Cell Phones, TVs and PCs Go to Die?, November 29,2009 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=trash-tech-pc-tv-waste