What is sustainable living?

November 10th, 2020

According to Green Matters, sustainable living is “a lifestyle that aims to reduce one’s environmental impact, in ways that are sustainable both for the Earth and for the person.” With more and more research indicating potentially devastating effects from global climate change, many individuals are making changes — big and small — in their daily lives to live more sustainably. 

Sustainable living has many different aspects, but most revolve around the ways we deal with the waste created by our daily lives. “Trash is the underpinning of everything,” proclaims Freedom Fonner, founder of Design by Freedom Labs, a self-proclaimed “invention company” whose motto is “Reimagining Our Future to Make Trash History.” Fonner expands on the goals of her company, saying, “Environmentalism in any form, shape or kind is driven by what we consume, how we consume it and what happens to this stuff that we consume after it has been consumed.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2017, we created 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste. This averages out to 4.51 pounds per person per day. Moreover, 52.1% of municipal solid waste ends up in landfills, which are significant contributors to greenhouse gases that impact climate change. Nearly forty 40% of the trash that ends up in landfills worldwide is then burned, which can release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and other toxins into the atmosphere. Trash — particularly plastic which doesn’t fully biodegrade — is a huge problem when we think about living sustainably.

At its core, sustainable living is about mindful consumption: what we buy and use, and what we do with it once we’re done. Recycling isn’t necessarily the answer either. “Recycling should be the last option. The best option is to lower your waste and avoid plastic packaging altogether,” says Anita Vandyke, author of A Zero Waste Life. 

Only 9% of plastic is recycled, with the majority cluttering landfills and clogging waterways, wreaking havoc on wildlife. Even when we do recycle plastic, it is downcycled, which means that it can’t be fully reused. Eventually this means even recycled plastic ends up in a landfill. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a massive collection of microplastic debris between Western North America and Japan. This patch has harmful effects on oceanic life, preventing sunlight from nourishing plankton and algae and leaching harmful petrochemicals into ocean waters. Instead, the ultimate goal is less consumption of materials that need to be disposed of at all. Avoiding the consumption of plastic altogether — the “reduce” in reduce, reuse, recycle — is far more important than recycling. 

Simply put, sustainable living is about making better choices before you purchase or use an item. For some, this lifestyle can take on radical implications.

Radical expressions 

In response to a search for more sustainable options, some individuals have taken extreme measures. Homesteading, hobby agriculture and waste harvesting are all radical ways one can reduce his or her impact on the environment. 

Minimalism is a key component to radical sustainable living. The core concept is simple: the less you purchase, the less waste can be accumulated in packaging and shipping. Some minimalists commit to only buying local food, either from farms or bulk food stores. They have small wardrobes and choose to buy secondhand or from ethically-sourced companies. They carry glass jars to avoid using Styrofoam for takeout, and always refuse a paper cup at the coffee shop because they’ve brought their own. 

Others go one step further, recycling their used kitchen and bathwater to flush toilets or water gardens. Many eco-activists have composting toilets, turning “humanure” into a form of fertilizer and avoiding sewage treatment facilities. Others focus on growing their own food, not only using extensive backyard gardens, but also raising chickens and other livestock to break free from the commercial food chain. 

Earthship, an environmentally-conscious architecture company founded in 1971 in response to the growing trash epidemic, creates stunning homes from upcycled trash. These homes are self-supporting, with wastewater management systems that don’t require a sewage or septic hookup. These homes also harness solar and wind for electricity, thus removing them entirely from the electrical grid. In many ways, they are the Rolls-Royce of radical environmental living!

What you can do 

Let’s be honest, you probably don’t want to move off the grid or start composting your own bodily waste. Thankfully, there are still many ways the rest of us can move toward a more sustainable lifestyle without radically transforming our lives. “A zero-waste lifestyle becomes largely about three things: buying without plastic, using the plastic we do have over and over again and minimizing the environmental impact of the production and transportation of the goods we buy,” said Emily Wright, a D.C. resident recently interviewed about her own zero-waste initiatives. 

Sustainable living can be as simple as replacing your paper towels and napkins with cloth ones or shopping for clothing secondhand. It can also include finding unpackaged alternatives to commonly plastic-packaged items, like switching from bottled shampoo to shampoo bars. 

“How can you live less without compromising what you want?” asked Jhánneu, a zero-waste YouTuber. “The key is finding products that are multi-use.” She suggests multi-use makeup products made from sustainable resources. Other ways to live sustainably include 

  • replacing plastic grocery bags with reusable cloth ones; 

  • keeping your used car longer — 30% of the emissions come from manufacturing and shipping; 

  • supporting local farms and growing your own vegetables, even if it’s just a potted tomato plant; 

  • investing in sustainably-sourced and ethically-manufactured clothing, and where possible, buying second hand; 

  • if a bulk store is available near you, buying dry goods in bulk to cut down on packaging waste; and 

  • using mason jars in place of single-use water bottles and takeout containers.


Sustainability in space 

Sustainable living takes on a whole new meaning when we think about future colonies that might exist on either the Moon or Mars. For example, to travel to Mars will take years, and any voyage must have a comprehensive plan for how to deal with waste accumulation and how to make the most of each and every item that is packed. Already, NASA scientists have created water-recycling systems that purify human urine into clean drinking water. The Urine Processor Assembly can reclaim 75% of the water from urine, and has been in use since 2009. Researchers say the processing system can potentially reach reclamation rates of 90%, creating sustainable ecosystems for future deep space travel or colonization. 

Water isn’t the only issue facing astronauts. As NASA scientists plan for future permanent settlements on the Moon and possibly Mars, they are also concerned about trash and fertilizer. The Vortical Oxidative Reactor Technology Experiment (VORTEX) is a device that will hopefully tackle both concerns. It will be able to incinerate trash in the less-than-ideal atmospheric conditions, thus creating ash. This will mean less trash to store or try to recycle. The ash produced will then act as a fertilizer to use on the regolith, the term used for lunar soil. When resources are limited, making the most out of even your waste is necessary for survival.

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