We’ve all done it. We didn’t bring our trusty canvas tote, so we fork out 5p for a plastic bag – ‘only this once’ – which will inevitably end up wedged under the kitchen sink with the other 43. Then, weighed down by bargains from the reduced section, the bus doesn’t appeal, so we grab an Uber instead. It’s only the third this week – next week we’ll be better.
When it comes to our personal lives, we are chronic cheat day-ers, utterly paralysed by our lack of self-control, yet in blissful and ignorant belief that ‘one day we will do it’. One day we will lose that 10 pounds, write that short novel or open that Etsy shop. But in reality – although some of us will eventually summon the strength to throw off the chains of idleness – the majority will lie on our death beds and happily sigh at what was a lost opportunity, and yet not altogether a grievous one.
We might shrug and laugh at our failure to achieve what are, in many cases, meaningless personal mini-goals. The reality is, if we have a few cheat days or even a few cheat years, in the end it doesn’t really matter – it’s simply a dent in our pride. But when our responsibility to the planet enters the equation, human laziness can’t be shrugged off. The Earth won’t wait for us to push past the barrier of human habit – if we don’t start today, it’ll be too late.
It’s no secret that our oceans are filling with plastic. An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of the stuff ends up in our oceans each year – that’s the same weight as around 9.2 million average-sized cars. The first global analysis of plastic production found that, as of 2015, approximately 79% of all plastic ever produced had ended up in landfill or the natural environment, with 12% being incinerated and only 9% recycled.
Plastic has come to dominate our lives, and every piece that isn’t re-used or recycled – currently the majority – ends up somewhere else, taking hundreds of years to decompose. Perhaps it will even end up back in your kitchen, in minuscule particles in your tuna salad after a hungry fish feasts on its new cohabitants. So yes, that one extra plastic bag, and all the rest, do matter.
When it comes to the production of greenhouse gasses that are warming the planet, national statistics on the UK’s emissions show that the transport sector contributed around 34% of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2017. Road transport, and passenger cars in particular, are the most significant contributors.
Although figures show that emissions from cars have decreased since the early 2000s due to greater diesel consumption, it’s clear that cars – with a huge portion of Brits driving to work solo five days a week – remain one of the biggest contributors to climate change. So yes, being a little too leisurely and grabbing an Uber instead of taking the bus does make a difference.
But when it comes to breaking old habits, our food choices are something many of us find particularly hard to change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), we’re currently not doing enough to confront the “immense threat” that climate change poses, with greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector set to increase if we don’t make a change.
The FAO estimates that agriculture contributes at least 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions and suggests we need to eliminate food waste and reduce the amount of high-carbon livestock; in other words, cattle. We should all be throwing less away and making fewer trips to Byron Burger, and be taking it far more seriously than we are.
The damage we’re doing to the environment is daunting – we’ve only covered some of the bases here – and as individuals we can feel helpless when it comes to our ability to do anything about it. But ultimately, although industrial processes must be made more sustainable, many of the biggest enemies to the environment come back to consumers.
The agriculture industry is there to feed us, the transport industry to move us, and plastics are there to package our food and our beauty products. So as individuals, making serious efforts to consume in a more sustainable way will have a huge impact on reducing the damage we’re doing. It’s the small and seemingly unimportant actions, like buying that extra plastic bag, that are in fact the kind of recurring action driving us further into environmental disaster.
It’s time we took a different attitude to the environment, time we appreciated the urgency of the situation and understood that a half-hearted attempt at changing our ways is simply not enough.