Notes on Thinking Green

Baseline tips for living in an environmentally-friendly way.

Notes on Thinking Green
Photo by Sergey Lapunin / Unsplash

Living in a way that causes less damage to the environment — and in other ways, helps to protect and sustain it — is a basic component of human life today. It demands our attention. As climate change continues, we can expect that to stay the course.

Bit by bit, thinking about environmental impact has changed the way I eat, purchase goods, travel, and generally manage my life quite a bit over the last few years. It’s a surprisingly fun journey down what feels like a meaningful path, introducing new and practical ways of thinking and decision-making that are rewarding and feel wise in their own right. And the principles you pick up can be applied just as well to other parts of life.

Most lifestyle changes to reduce environment damage are straightforward enough, and have become something close to common knowledge: minimise the use of plastic, the consumption of animals and animal products, lower the carbon footprint associated with travel, energy usage, and the purchase of goods. Recycle properly. Avoid wasting water.

Avoid waste in general, as a guiding principle.

These are practical rules that are relatively easy to put into action, creating a good baseline to live in a greener way. For the most part the actions required are easy to pick up.

Still, when you put rules like this into practise, it's also a learning process. Week by week, month by month, I discover ways to level up. Things that hadn't occurred to me before. The longer I spend making decisions with the environment in mind, the more things I think of.

Below are a few tips that might give you a shortcut to levelling up your own eco skills quicker. Notes from someone who is thinking and learning about living in greener ways as he goes.

Reduce plastic in

Obviously, recycle plastic. And rinse out yoghurt pots, containers for sticky liquids, and other plastics that might need it to allow sticking them in the plastics bin with the rest. Plastic needs to be relatively clean and dry (and containers empty) to actually be recycled.

What I’ve found myself thinking of more, though, is reducing the plastic that gets into my house in the first place. I’ve come to think of plastic as a toxic substance — one that seems to be everywhere, and has a propensity to fill up houses as well as oceans. I would rather reduce the amount of the stuff I have to deal with in the first place. For the plastic Stuff you have use for, keep it and use it. Don't throw it out. See what I mean about plastic having a weirdly invasive property, as if it wants to fill up your house? Keep the plastic you already have and that has utility; reduce unnecessary new Plastic Things coming in. That usually means reducing unnecessary plastic packaging.

Browsing the supermarket, you might think of foods as having a "plastic cost" attached to them. If packaged in unnecessary, unwieldy chunks of plastic, skip them. Small portions of nuts in thick plastic boxes? Herbs entombed in weird plastic triangles? Eggs in plastic domes? Pass.

Look for options where you can pick your stuff loose (fruits, nuts, herbs), or alternatives with slim or non-plastic containers. You also might choose, say, olive oil in glass bottles (good stuff) or bigger metal canisters (daily use), instead of the standard big green plastic bottles that line the shelves.

The idea of reducing the amount of plastic you bring home from the supermarket seems obvious once you think of it. It was something I was blind to until recently, though. I thought of it as the supermarket’s problem to solve. Which it is — and France has just implemented laws prohibiting plastic packaging on a variety of foods, like fruit, to enforce these changes on the systemic level. In the meantime, though, we can cast our votes with our wallets, and avoid the amount of plastic we bring home and have to bother with.

Soap dispensers

Another plastics one. Liquid soaps and shower gels are daily use items. People go through a lot of them, continuously. And they tend to each come in their own heavy-duty plastic dispenser.

Ideally, switch your hand soaps to bars.

For shower gels (if you don't want to switch to bars of soap), buy a quality, multi-use soap dispenser to stick in the shower that you can fill up from a bigger source. If you want to use liquid hand soaps, get a good dispenser for every sink in your home.

Now you’ve freed yourself from considering the size and practicality-as-a-dispenser of the shower gels and soaps you buy from the supermarket. Get the biggest ones they have, instead, with the most eco-friendly containers — you’ll only be using it to top up your dispensers.

Better still, go to a wholesale supermarket, or shop online, for the biggest containers of soap and shower gel you can get. If you can rid yourself of single-use liquid soap dispensers, you'll have reduced the plastic you bring home from the supermarket quite a bit, in one stroke.

Buy foods that help the environment

Incorporate into your weekly shopping list foods that have an active, positive impact on the environment.

A good example is Brazil nuts: buying them helps protect the Amazonian rainforest by protecting space that would otherwise go to cattle farming. So, consider the Brazil nut when they are in season while perusing your snack options.

Replace meat and fish with plant-based alternatives. I heartily recommend you get into beans, potatoes, and the countless classic Italian dishes that don't happen to use meat or fish. Start by replacing two or three meals you would normally rely on meat for each week, and the way you shop will change.

Work on your shopping list until you have five-or-so awesome ingredients you pick up every week that, in some way, help the environment or replace ingredients you used to pick up that had a negative impact on it.

Choose things that will last

Think as much about the quality of products, and the extended lifespan that quality brings, when you are making purchasing decisions.

Buy things that will last, and that serve a useful purpose. If they last maybe three or four times as long as the cheaper option, they are worth 1.5x or 2x the cost.

In the world of technology and electronics, that might mean avoiding buying cheap Chinese products that are not built to last.

In the world of clothing, that means rejecting fast fashion. Buy quality clothing that does not quickly fall apart.

Participate in the second-hand market

When it comes to purchasing decisions, get into the habit of considering the second-hand market first.

Just thinking about second-hand options will unlock new possibilities, and often eliminate the need to buy newly manufactured products altogether.

Get good at selling and buying second-hand goods, so it becomes frictionless.

This goes for disposing of goods, too. Don't dispose of, or recycle, things that can be sold on to be used. Even broken electronics can be sold on eBay for parts.

There are people who are in a position to make use of things you might think of throwing away, and are watching for them online. Engage with that market.

The money is a bonus, on top of putting things in their right place.

Reevaluate the cost of more ethical animal products

This one is less about the environment, and more of an ecological thought.

If you eat animal products that have both cheap and free-range options, a useful mind hack is not to think of the cheap option as the “normal” price of that product, but rather, as the artificially cheapened price.

Some animal products have been made cheaper than we should ever expect them to be, and the cost of that cheapness is making animals suffer. It is a case of capitalistic competition causing real suffering through a "race to the bottom" scenario.

Take eggs. Battery-cage eggs are less than half the price, sure. Think of what an egg is, though. It is a substantial piece of food, dense with protein and fats. Two can make a meal. The most expensive free-range option in the supermarket is actually still a cheap food item, when you consider the value of eggs, and compare them to the cost vs. conveinance vs. nutritional value of other foods.

It is better to get the cheaper versions of other foods, that don't directly relate to the suffering of animals. You can make savings elsewhere.

Same goes for chicken. Free-range chickens are still affordable, compared to other foods. If you eat chicken, get the free-range ones, and consider their nutrional value to justify the price. Especially if you buy chickens whole (they are quick and easy to joint), you can make one chicken go a long way. About four meals.

Just because an artificially cheaper version of an animal product is dangled in front of you on the shelves does not make the more ethical options expensive. They are actually still great value.

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, short fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected], or follow on Twitter.