5 Simple Strategies to Make Society More Sustainable

Individual solutions alone won’t fix our waste problem. To make society more sustainable, we need more systemic strategies. By that I mean: wouldn’t it be nice not to have to worry about what to do with a plastic straw, for example, so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill? To really eliminate that worry, government, industry, business, and other social institutions/entities should all get involved. So the real question is: what if there were no plastic straws to begin with? Here are 5 strategies you can employ to help society as a whole reduce waste and thus be more sustainable.

Tip #171: Resist disposable culture

Despite our efforts to use things forever, they still seem to wear out too quickly. Sadly, this is often by design. Countless goods we buy are produced with planned obsolescence, forcing us to replace them in short order. The fashion industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of planned obsolescence. In fact, many clothing items are worn only seven times before they fade and fray. So when our grandparents complain that “they don’t make things like they used to,” they are right. This is what keeps many companies in business.  When business wants to be “sustainable,” they focus on profit. That has to change.

Tip #172: Boycott single-use products

So let’s play to companies’ desire to stay in business. If we don’t buy throw-away items—items that perpetuate the linear Take-Make-Waste business model—companies will stop making them. My sister made a reusable pod for her coffee maker so she doesn’t have to buy the expensive single-use pods. I bought several sets of recycled plastic place settings and cloth napkins to use instead of disposable ones so our parties and picnics are zero-waste. Friends are joining a movement to ban birthday party gift bags with cheap plastic trinkets that end up in the trash a week later. As demand for these short-life products decline, so will profit, and it will no longer make good business sense to produce them. Then sustainable profit and environmental sustainability are no longer mutually exclusive.

Tip #173: Pass plastic-free ordinances

While individuals can certainly affect change via purchasing power, it helps to have government support in limiting less-than-stellar choices. Clear examples of this are ordinances that prohibit single-use plastics. Such disposable goods are good for business. Consumers buy them, toss them, and repeat indefinitely, making a steady profit stream for single-use plastic manufactures and retailers. But this practice is not so great for household budgets, and it’s definitely harmful to the environment. Public concern is on the rise for the amount of plastic trash that ends up in our oceans and waterways. Of particular concern are the microplastics that we now unwitting consume as it works its way up the food chain. The good news is that we can stem the flow if we just say, “No.”

Many cities are already taking sustainable action. Not too long ago, my town passed an ordinance to prohibit plastic grocery bags. Now Laguna Beach shoppers must pay for a paper sack or bring their own reusable tote. One of my colleagues on the city’s Environmental Sustainability remarked that prior to this ban, plastic bags were all over the place—on the beach, in the gutters, hanging on trees. But now, this form of plastic litter is virtually gone. Taking a step further, our neighbor to the north, Malibu, was one of the first cities to ban plastic single-use drinking straws, and others will likely follow suit.

But why stop there? The EU just approved a ban on 10 single-use plastics by 2021. This will reduce the amount of marine litter, 80% of which is from single-use plastics. While the EU may outpace the US in environmental regulations, they are also concerned with finances: marine litter costs the EU an estimated 259 to 695 million Euros per year. So if you can’t persuade your city council with environmental arguments, try the financial one!

Tip #174: Support circular economies

The EU’s ban on single use plastics emerged from their 2015 circular economy action plan. In the previous section, I wrote about the need to shift from our linear production and consumption models to a circular one—what’s now known as the circular economy. One forerunner in the circular economy, Kingfisher (a British home improvement company like Home Depot) envisions a world in which “creating and using products wastes nothing.”  In working toward this goal, Kingfisher has committed to 1000 closed loop innovations by 2020.

 On the production side, these include designing for disassembly so that parts can be reused or recycled and sourcing recycled materials; for product use, building out renting and repair services; and at end-of-product-life repurposing, incentivizing product return and developing repurposing production lines (like kitchen countertops made from packaging and recycled product parts). Kingfisher is also helping to establish Circular Economy 100, an Ellen MacArthur Foundation platform for companies, emerging innovators, and regional leaders to share best practices, build networks, and collectively solve shared challenges in moving to a circular economy. These innovations are not about tacking on green business practices to improve a company’s marketability, but revolutionizing the way we do business. And thanks to the law of supply and demand, citizens like us can spur these sustainable innovations by trading our linear products for circular ones.

Tip #175: Shop circular companies

Companies who are adopting circular business models are still few and far between. But if we support them, they will set a good example for others. The Circular Economy 100 directory lists members of the platform, including Apple and Google in the U.S. and many other companies globally. Other new companies appear in Google searches for “circular economy.” 

An example is Tom Cridland’s 30-year Sweatshirt (and now T-shirts, jackets, and trousers). Cridland’s clothing is “built to last a lifetime and backed with our signature 30 Year Guarantee. The company will repair or replace any item for free if its durability does not live up to expectations. Of course, this stuff is not cheap—the sweatshirt is close to $100. While the amount spent on cheaper sweatshirts over the same time period may be about the same or even more, it is difficult for some folks to come up with so much cash up front. That is the reality of buying more durable goods, but there’s a fix for that, too…

Next Week…

We’ll consider 5 ways to help others through our sustainability efforts to reduce waste. It’s easier than you think!

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