A Guide to Making More Sustainable Choices Everyday
This conversation is sponsored by General Mills.
How sustainable are our everyday choices, really?
I’ve been looking inward to answer this question for myself. I do a lot of the basics, like recycling, composting my food scraps and bringing reusable bags to the grocery. My husband’s coffee business even uses mostly compostable plastics. But the environmental impact of modern society still feels massive, and it’s easy to develop eco-anxiety. Here are some of the choices I found make the biggest impact, from the basic to deep dives. I think incorporating even a few of these tips into my every day life will make a big difference.
Avoid single-use, non-recyclable plastics. Straws, coffee stirrers, utensils and mesh vegetable bags are some of the worst pollutants. Replace plastic straws with metal or glass alternatives (these copper ones are cute). Carry reusable bamboo utensils with you when you travel outside of the home. If you must get takeaway, find restaurants that let you stow your takeaway in a reusable bento box (like this one). Or choose takeaway spots that offer compostable containers.
Eat locally and seasonally. According to the EPA, 28% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. That includes transporting your groceries from their point of origin to your local grocery store. Vote with your wallet by choosing locally sourced produce whenever possible — and, even better, try to favor seasonal produce. Not only is the flavor of in-season produce top notch, but your dollars directly impact the quality of life of local farmers. Of course some companies are taking steps to reduce their own environmental impact of shipping their products to store. For example, In 2017, General Mills reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent (since 2010) by implementing more efficient transport modes and improving fuel efficiency.
Center your diet around plant based foods. Animal farming, when not done with the long-term health of the environment in mind, is one of the biggest climate offenders. If you’re going to consume meat, eggs or dairy, make the choice to buy from farmers that treat their livestock well and that let their animals live beyond free-range. Animal farmers using regenerative agriculture methods are doing the most to stymie the impact of producing animals for meat, milk and eggs. If you cant get consciously produced animal products, eat plants instead (that’s my philosophy).
Choose products that are using more intentional practices. Make sure packaging is recyclable or compostable, or that the food inside of the packaging is grown/made with more sustainable methods. Our shopping choices are still very much like a vote, so when you buy these products you’re telling the food industry that you want more of that.
Choose foods grown using regenerative agriculture methods. What’s regenerative agriculture? It’s farming practices that can improve the earth, rebuild topsoil and sequester carbon emissions. Regenerative agriculture actively restores the soil and heals the environment by minimizing or eliminating tilling, using cover crops, diversifying crop rotations (not just growing the same crop year after year for decades) and including grazing animals. The outcome is healthier soil, increased biodiversity (bees, butterflies, etc.) and more sustainable farming communities.
General Mills has taken major steps in implementing regenerative agriculture practices into farmland across the country. For example, they’ve partnered with Gunsmoke Farms to convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland in South Dakota to certified organic acreage by 2020. This will create one of the largest organic farms in the U.S.! Farmers managing the land will plant diverse crop rotations and apply other regenerative agricultural practices to build resilient soil.
One of my favorite General Mills brands — Cascadian Farm — has a vision to empower organic oat farming communities in the U.S. and Canada to implement and champion regenerative farming principles. They’re in the early stages of this process and are working with their oat growers on 2,500 acres of land to understand the impact of regenerative organic practices on soil health, biodiversity, and economic resilience in farming communities.
Stop drinking bottled water. Bring a water bottle with you when you travel. If you forget to bring a water bottle with you when you’re out, you can always buy a beverage that comes in a glass bottle and use that throughout the day (I do this with kombucha all the time).
Stop accepting plastic bags at the grocery (or anywhere else). Bring fabric bags with you when you shop, both for your produce and your groceries generally. Don’t forget to bring your bags when shopping for everything else too!
Recycle single-use plastic bags at your local grocery drop-off box. A lot of groceries have these recycling containers now. When you do receive plastic bags, do your best to hold onto them until you can recycle them in these special bins. The same goes for industrial compostables, which can’t go in single-stream recycling bins.
Avoid wish-cycling. So you just finished a smoothie that came in a compostable cup. But there’s no industrial composting bin anywhere nearby. Do you cross your fingers and recycle it in hopes that it someday magically turns into a tree? That’s what most of us do. Trying to recycle compostables is a huge problem in our recycling system. Don’t do it. Waste centers reject large quantities of recyclables for being mixed with compostables. Find an industrial bin or (as painful as it is) and trash it. At least it breaks down faster than petroleum plastic.
Buy in bulk. It reduces packaging, saves money and ensures your product is fresh. It’s a no-brainer, really.
Nix single use coffee cups. Single-use coffee cups are not recyclable. Use glass or metal reusable cups, like any from this list.
Clean your recyclables. The US is having a huge problem right now with recyclable materials arriving at recycling stations contaminated, and thus being shifted to trash. Make sure cans, bottles and the like are clean before they go in the recycling bin.
Recycle the unrecyclable! Single use coffee pods, pens, contact lenses, markers… they can all be recycled via Terra Cycle. You can even start recycling programs in your community with their help!
Know your local rules around recycling. Since China upped their stringency on how much contaminated recyclable material they will take, American recycling programs have been in flux. It’s likely that your local government has been flummoxed. Your local recycling rules may have changed without your realizing. You can learn more about how China’s recycling import practices are impacting your state here.
Join a volunteer trash pick up group. Litter is everyone’s problem. So who’s going to deal with it? We are! Join a trash pick up volunteer group, or start one.
Buy pre-worn clothing. Shopping consignment or thrift is a great way to protest the ecological evils of fast-fashion, save money and stock a unique closet. I personally love shopping consignment, it’s a bit like a treasure hunt. I usually find great quality, like-new items at a fraction of the original cost. There are also a lot of resale boutiques online if you don’t have good consignment or thrift boutiques nearby. I shop consignment or thrift about 80% of the time, although of course I love to get a new piece once in a while. For new pieces I’ve been slowly switching over to more sustainable brands like Everlane, Nisolo, Reformation and Outdoor Voices (here’s a great list I use as a reference to find ethical clothing).
Avoid synthetic materials that shed micro-plastics. Whenever possible, try not to buy new synthetic clothing (polyester and polyester-blends). Micro-plastics shed from washing synthetic fabrics enter our waterways and, eventually, the food chain. They’re nearly impossible to clean up.
Limit how much you shop online. There are certain items that are really hard to get these days except through online shopping (especially if you live in remote or rural areas). I don’t think any of us are going to stop shopping online, but just be wary of relying too heavily on it for day-to-day needs you can buy locally. Nobody needs to buy toothpaste online (I’m totally guilty of this!). Shopping in-person drastically reduces the amount of packaging you consume and reduces carbon emissions created from planes and trucks delivering products to your doorstep.
Plant a pollinator garden. Pollinators help supply 1/3 of the food and beverages that we eat… that really puts it into perspective, eh? Many pollinator populations are in decline as a result of loss in feeding and nesting habitats, pollution, disease and changes in climate patterns, so we need to do our part to restore these habitats. Almost anyone can grow flowers that feed bees, butterflies and hummingbirds in gardens, window boxes or flower pots on your front stoop. It’s beautiful, rewarding and really helps your local environment to flourish. General Mills has also taken big steps to revitalize pollinator populations. In fact, they’re in the midst of planting pollinator habitats on nearly 100,000 acres of farmland across the U.S. to help bees and butterflies do what they do best — pollinate plants to make fruits, nuts and crops grow.
Or sponsor a hive. If you can’t plant your own pollinator habitat, consider sponsoring a hive via The Honey Bee Conservancy.
Live closer to work, use public transportation to commute, or work from home. Reducing travel-time really helps to reduce your overall yearly carbon emissions.
Off-set carbon emissions from travel via Cool Effect. Your donations help to actively reduce carbon pollution.