Sustainability around the world: It’s not that complicated

Since becoming interested in sustainability last winter, I have lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Rishikesh, India; Ottawa, Canada; and, Fuzhou, Fujian, China. I have travelled across Europe, South East Asia, and across southern India, and astoundingly, I’ve come to the simple conclusion: Sustainability is not that hard. 

When we talk about sustainability at conferences in Canada, we are usually talking about big-scale community initiatives, projects, and startups, all with the potential to *change the world*. Of course, these are important, and all the power to you if this is your way of giving back. For many, this perception of sustainability puts the essence of it out of reach. I’ve had many friends comment, “I can be sustainable when I make more money”; “I don’t have any time to volunteer”; “I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do!”. 

Here’s the thing: (On a personal level) Sustainability is incredibly easy. Pack your lunch. Shop at secondhand stores, and bring your own coffee on your morning commute. Return your beer bottles, throw your used clothes in the secondhand bin near your house, and reuse (and avoid) those plastic grocery bags. Sustainability, as much as it is now about clean energy, shared commutes, and compostable materials, has historically always been accessible because it is and always was based on economic constraints. 

Anecdote 1: When I talk about what sparked my interest in sustainability, I first mention the garbage I saw lining the streets in Vietnam. The anecdote I typically share is my horror at receiving my morning coffee complete with 5 pieces of plastic in the takeaway format, realizing that half the city was doing the exact same every morning. However, upon returning home I found out that Canadians create 3x the amount of waste created in Vietnam. How was this possible?! 

Anecdote 2: The second anecdote I share is the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese, and of people in developing countries in general. In Vietnam, a pot is not just a pot. It’s the pot you make your soup in, wash your dishes in; the stool you sit on while you drink your beer, and the bucket you pack everything into at the end of the day. In Canada, we have a different branded item for each of these things. In Vietnam, if your pot has a dent, it has a dent. In Canada, if your pot has a dent, you replace it. Why? My theory is that because we have the budget, we do. We are economically enabled to spend on these branded, specific-use items, so we no longer have to be creative about all the different uses that can come from a single object. Let’s try to get this resourcefulness back!
Resourcefulness in developing countries has gotten me to rethink sustainability. While we are sometimes lead to believe that sustainability moves only in big leaps of electric cars, sun panels, and wind energy, truthfully there is a massive impact in changing our habits. You don’t have to go zero-waste tomorrow. You just have to be conscious of your habits and do your best to change one thing at a time. Reuse your goods, and think twice before buying something new: “What do I need this new item for, specifically? And, do I have anything already that can actually meet that goal?”

Below, I have made a list of small changes you can make, one at a time. Trust me, I’m writing this list just as much for myself as I am for you. These are all steps we can continually work through together. 

  1. Pack your lunch and use reusable containers.
  2. Bring a reusable water bottle (why do throw away bottles even exist anymore…?)
  3.  Think twice before buying that new top: What is that new piece of clothing going to achieve for you? Is it made from natural fabric, or a poly-blend? (Poly-blends go straight to landfill, while natural fabric can be recycled)
  4. Make your own coffee in the morning, or bring your tumbler with you to the coffee shop
  5. Switch to Fair Trade coffee (this ensures the people working in the fields are getting fair pay for their work)
  6. Buy a bamboo or coconut wood toothbrush and straw
  7. Buy a bamboo or coconut wood utensil set to throw in your bag (this one and #6 can be found on eBay)
  8. Use an e-reader as much as possible (I know, I’m a sucker for printing things out, too…)
  9. DON’T SMOKE. For pete’s sake, there’s enough pollution in the world already and no one wants to pay for a preventable hospital bill
  10. Take public transportation or ride your bike as much as possible
  11. Turn the lights off when you’re not in the room
  12. Only do a load of laundry, or the dishes when the machines are full. On this note, be conscious of how old your machines are. The older they are, the more energy they use. 
  13. Try to shorten your shower time (nobody actually follows the Rinse, Lather, Repeat. Just do it once, for goodness sake)
  14. Bring a reusable container with you for leftovers when you go out to eat
  15. Connect with nature when you can. I firmly believe that the more we reconnect our lives with nature, the more intuitive all this environment stuff will become.
  16. Try not to buy packaged food, and especially try not to buy processed foods. All of those things were once made at home (and not wrapped in plastic). Also, be critical of the ingredients. Hotdogs should be illegal. They’re terrible for you.
  17. Reuse as much as possible! Into crafting? Make it a goal to use only materials around the house for your next project. 
  18. Consider shopping at social enterprises. Sure, they collect a profit. But rather than collecting a profit and getting rich on the backs of others, the money is reinvested into the enterprise to do more good. 
  19. Keep your electronics as long as possible (don’t go buy the new iPhone just because it’s available). This is good for the planet and your wallet, you can thank me later. 
  20. RECYCLE: Bottles, paper, recyclable plastic (THIS DOES NOT INCLUDE GROCERY BAGS! I REPEAT, GROCERY BAGS ARE NOT RECYCLEABLE), tin and metals, textiles (to secondhand bins – even if they are not fit for the store, they’ll be resold to an upcycling company), batteries, and electronics. 

Of course, there are a million things we can all be doing differently. But, above are a few of the foundational things we can all be doing quite easily, despite our busy schedules and multiple commitments. Good luck and as always, send me a message if you have any questions or comments 🙂 Happy recycling!